PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Brita Sigourney has long skied in Maddie Bowman’s shadow. In halfpipe skiing’s Olympic debut in 2014, Bowman won the gold medal while Sigourney finished sixth.
Four years later, on a sunny day at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Sigourney cast her own light. She threw huge amplitude above the halfpipe and won an Olympic medal of her own — a bronze.
“My first Olympics I just didn’t know what to expect, and I was just so happy to be there,” said Sigourney. “This time I really wanted it.
“To see me pull it off, I don’t know, I’m still in shock. I didn’t know I could do that. Just to see myself compete under that kind of pressure and pull it off, I’m just so relieved.”
In the three-run final in the Phoenix Snow Park halfpipe, Sigourney scored 91.60 on her third run. She finished behind Canada’s Cassie Sharpe, who in a breakout year earned a 95.80 for gold. Marie Martinod, the 2014 Olympic silver medalist from France, won silver again, one point ahead of Sigourney with a 92.60.
Annalisa Drew, also a two-time Olympian for Team USA, finished just behind Sigourney in fourth with a 90.80 — her highest score ever. Drew temporarily passed her teammate for the bronze-medal position in the final run. But Sigourney nailed her third and final run.
“I know Brita, I just knew,” said Drew. “When I got put into third, it was more of a ‘that’s nice’ kind of thing, not ‘yay!’ I wasn’t going to celebrate too early.”
Bowman, who won her fifth gold at X Games in January, was unable to land a clean run in the final and finished 11th.
“I just decided to go for it, and I wasn’t going to hold back,” said Bowman. “And I’m happy with how I skied. I’m really proud of these ladies out here today. I didn’t want to put down a safety run, so I went for it.”
Devin Logan, the first U.S. freestyle skier to qualify for both halfpipe and slopestyle at the Olympics, did not make the final and finished 15th. She fell practicing for the slopestyle final last week, severely bruising her right leg, which hampered her performance in both contests. Still, she was happy with her performance. The 2014 Olympic silver medalist in slopestyle, Logan had met her goal of competing in two events in one Games.
For Sigourney, the journey to the Olympic podium has been a long one, fraught with injuries and lengthy recoveries.
As her parents Julie and Thad Sigourney, watched from the bottom of the PyeongChang halfpipe — both clad in commemorative polka-dot Korean parkas — they knew that their daughter had come a long way since she first began competing in freestyle skiing at age 8 with the Alpine Meadows team, then decided to focus full-time on freeskiing while a freshman at the University of California-Davis, where she played club water polo until it became a winter season sport.
The SIgourneys are from Carmel, California, where Brita was raised (and would have been a surfer, said Thad, had the ocean been warmer).
While their daughter had ups — such as being the first female skier to land a 1080 in the halfpipe at the X Games in 2012 — she also had significant downs.
Her litany of injuries includes seven surgeries: three on her knees, two on her shoulders and one each on her thumb and ankle.
Then in the Sochi Olympic Games, Sigourney “skied so beautiful through prelims and fell in the finals,” remembered Julie, as she started to cry. “She had the second-highest score (in qualification). It was so hard.”
But this season, the Sigourneys had noticed something different about their daughter. She had been skiing well all week, and she was “calmly confident,” said Julie.
“She seems happier with …,” began Julie.
“… herself,” added Thad.
“ … with whatever happens,” continued Julie, in that easy-back-and-forth that couples who have been married long often have.
“She’s working really hard, but she seems to have a calmness about her, an acceptance that if it’s not perfect, if she doesn’t win, it’s okay, and if she does, wonderful,” added Julie. “She just seems to have this level of calm.”
Julie also saw an “older and wiser” side of her daughter and noted that she was skiing smarter.
“It is not as hard for me to watch anymore,” said mom.
On Tuesday, after qualifying for the halfpipe final with the third-highest score, Sigourney knew what to expect in the Olympic final. She would have to maximize her strength — her high amplitude — and hope the judges rewarded it.
Against an all-star field — including Bowman, the sport’s first Olympic champion; Ayana Onozuka who is the reigning world champion and Olympic bronze medalist from 2014; and the ever-consistent Martinod — Sigourney put herself in third place with a run that scored 89.90.
Sharpe and Martinod laid down their medal-winning runs with scores in the 90s — a sign of how much women’s freeskiing has progressed. By comparison, in her Olympic-gold-medal-winning run four years ago, Bowman scored 89.00.
Logan watched the women’s final, and noted, “the amplitude, the tricks, the difficulty of everything, there was talk a while ago how women’s skiing wasn’t progressing. I think these contests really shut those people up.”
On her third and final run, Drew topped 90 as well. Sigourney was now in fourth.
“I was so nervous, and I was nauseous, and I just took some deep breaths,” said Sigourney of what she was thinking before her third run. “I took deep breaths all day. Just put it out of my mind and focused on my skiing. I knew I could do it.”
After winning the bronze medal, Sigourney reflected on her journey.
“I feel like I’ve overcome so much,” she said. “It definitely helps to have an Olympic medal to prove everything I’ve overcome was worth it, and all those surgeries were worth it and to keep fighting was worth it and all that rehab and physical therapy were worth it.”
Asked what set Sigourney’s third run apart, Drew said, “Her grabs, she grabs everything.”
Despite not winning medals, Bowman and Drew were thrilled for their friend and teammate.
“She’s worked so hard for this and has wanted it so bad,” said Bowman, as she began to choke up. “I’ve watched her through the ups and downs, and it’s awesome to watch her walk away with a medal.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.