KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a warm winter night in the mountains that overlook the Black Sea, Maddie Bowman laid down the best run of the night and then she wrapped herself in an American flag and climbed onto the top step of the first Olympic podium for ski halfpipe.
Stunned and smiling, she basked in what was both an overwhelming personal achievement and a historic moment for her sport.
“I’m thinking and feeling this isn’t real,” Bowman, who trains at the USSA Center of Excellence and is one of the 23 Olympic athletes attending Westminster College, said after winning the debut of women’s ski halfpipe competition with an 89-point run. “I think I was pretty shocked when it happened. And happy and excited and I don’t know — all of the emotions. All of them.”
The night wasn’t just emotional because the sport crowned its first ever Olympic champion.
The competition transformed into a sort of unofficial tribute to the late Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke, who was not only key in the effort to have the sport included in the Olympics, but also a tireless advocate of opportunities for women in the sport.
Burke died after suffering a head injury in a fall while training at Park City Mountain Resort in 2012. Gone were the stickers that memorialized Burke with declarations of, “I ski for Sarah.” The IOC ruled they were “propaganda” and couldn’t be worn by participants or coaches.
But that didn’t matter as skiers said they’ve found ways to honor her throughout their Olympic experience starting with simply feeling gratitude for the trail she blazed for female freeskiers.
“I absolutely thought of her though the whole experience, even through my comeback last year and the qualifying process this year,” said Salt Lake City resident Angeli Van Laanen, who returned to the sport last year after taking three years off to recover from Lyme disease. “She made such a mark on my life; she inspired me to get into halfpipe. So honoring her and being a part of this event tonight was amazing.”
Tributes included the skiers and snowboarders who slipped the pipe coming down in the shape of a heart in her honor, a Twitter hashtag used by anyone referring to the event (#celebratesarah) and a picture of her fellow Canadian Rosalind Groenewould standing at the top of the halfpipe pointing to the blank spot where her Sarah sticker would normally be.
“She was the inspiration that got me into halfpipe,” said Van Laanen. “She was a coach at a summer ski camp and she was my coach for the week I attended in Whistler. She taught me my first trick in the halfpipe.”
Silver medalist Marie Martinod of France, who scored 85.4 points, came out of retirement to compete in the Sochi Games because of Burke.
“I came back to compete at the Olympic Games because one night Virginie (Faivre, of France) and Sarah Burke came to my place and told me that halfpipe is going to be in the Olympics for sure. ‘You have to come.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me; that’s nonsense. I’ll never be able to do it.’ But then I thought, I can’t watch it on the couch on television.”
Martinod said returning to the sport was grueling. But it was Burke, who even after her death, continued to inspire the 29-year-old mother of one daughter.
“Each time that I was not in good shape, I would think about Sarah,” she said, “as if she was here, and she would say ‘C’mon, you can do it!’ ”
And Thursday night in front of Burke’s parents and husband she became one of the sport’s first medalists.
“I’m still on cloud nine now, like I am still doing my run right now,” she said laughing. “It goes too fast.”
Joining 19-year-old Bowman and Martinod on the podium was Japan’s Ayana Onozuka, who scored 83.2 points to earn bronze.
“It’s so awesome to be here, and all of us were pretty emotional,” said Canada’s only finalist, Rosalind Groenewould, who finished seventh. “And pretty excited about it. There were a lot of falls from a lot of women, I think because everyone was pushing themselves to go hard and do bigger tricks.”
It was that fact, maybe more than any other, that made those who knew and loved Burke best believe she would have been thrilled with the sport’s Olympic debut. Burke didn’t just want women to have the same competitive opportunities men had, she also wanted them to learn the same tricks. She was the first woman to land a 720, a 900 and a 1080 in competition.
But it was Bowman’s innovative skiing that won gold on this night. Despite feeling so nervous she thought she might “barf” before her first run, Bowman left no doubt as to which skier earned the sport’s first Olympic gold medal as she was one of the few riders to land both of her tough, technical runs in Thursday night’s final at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
“It’s the most technical run out of any girl skiing,” said Bowman’s friend and U.S. teammate Brita Sigourney, who finished sixth. “It’s been the most technical run this whole year, plus it’s amplitude and style. She just has it all.”
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