KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Halfpipe skiing made its Olympic debut in Sochi, and many said that the event would serve as a tribute to Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who lobbied the International Olympic Committee to include halfpipe skiing in the Olympic Winter Games but then died in 2012 before she could compete herself.
While Burke was on many of the skiers’ minds, the night belonged to American Maddie Bowman, who won the first Olympic gold medal in halfpipe skiing.
“This doesn’t really seem real to me,” Bowman said. “Before I was dropping in, I felt like I was going to barf on my first run. And by the second run, I had calmed down a little bit, and it worked out."
“I can’t believe it just happened,” she added. “I felt every emotion, and I’m so happy.”
She scored an 89 on her second run, putting a big margin on French skier Marie Martinod, who claimed silver, and Ayana Onozuka from Japan who took bronze.
Bowman, 20, has won several big halfpipe competitions this season, including the Dew Tour in December (the first Olympic qualifier) and Winter X Games, and she was a favorite to continue her streak in Sochi. But she has not been infallible. Best friend and teammate Brita Sigourney, 24, beat her at the second Olympic qualifier, a world cup in December. And Bowman qualified for the Olympic final third, again beaten by Martinod, this year’s X Games bronze medalist, and Sigourney.
The women were not holding back in their Olympic debut. Crashes took out several skiers, including Anais Caradeux, who crashed so hard in her second qualifying run that she lay unmoving at the bottom of the halfpipe for several seconds.
“The level of riding tonight was crazy,” said Bowman. “Gosh, all the girls were going huge, first of all. Second of all, there were great tricks being thrown. And Anna Drew going for the 12? Awesome. Oh gosh, we really showed the world what we can do.”
Bowman was unfazed by her competitor’s big tricks. Standing at the top of the halfpipe, she was thinking, “I’ve done this, I’ve done this run. I can go down and I can lay it down. All I want to do is land it.”With two 900s in her run, she landed every trick and received the highest first-run score of 85.40. Her second run was a victory lap, and it was even better than her first.
“I wanted to land a run, and I landed two,” gushed Bowman, looking as relieved as she was happy.
“It’s the most technical run out of any girl skiing,” said Sigourney of Bowman’s run. “It’s been the most technical run this whole year. Plus it’s amplitude and style, she just has it all. It’s been getting better at every competition.”
Standing at the bottom, Bowman’s dad, Bill, was ringing a gold U.S. Ski Team bell that was given to him by a friend from Kirkwood, Calif. The bell was a relic from the 1994 Games, rung by friends and family of alpine skier Eva Twardokens, who competed in Lillehammer, Norway. Mr.
Bowman thought a gold bell might bring the U.S. halfpipe skiers Olympic gold. When he saw his daughter ski, he knew it had.
“I thought she deserved it on the first run and on the second run, to win this thing,” he said.
But Sigourney still had to ski her second run, and Mr. Bowman knew better than to count his daughter a gold medalist yet. Then Sigourney struggled with an “unnatural 5” (a trick spinning in the direction that she is not comfortable spinning) and ended up sixth.
“I’ve been struggling on that ‘right 5’ all year,” she said. “Having that in the front of my mind going into my second run of finals at the Olympics knowing all I have to do is land this one trick I’ve been struggling with was definitely kind of overwhelming.”
Annalisa Drew and Angeli VanLaanen also made the final but fell both runs. Drew finished ninth and VanLaanen 11th.
After Sigourney finished her run, she and Bowman embraced, looking as if they were trying to hold each other up. Asked what they said, Sigourney smiled, visibly relaxed and said, “God, she’s so funny. She said that she wanted me to win. She’s so proud of me, and I told her to shut up because she deserves this more than anyone.”
After the competition, thoughts drifted back to Sarah Burke and what the Canadian skier would have thought of the first women’s Olympic halfpipe skiing event.
“I think she would have been proud of us, I definitely think this is what she would have wanted us to do,” said Sigourney. “And seeing Maddie’s run, it was more technical than any run I ever saw in the whole history of skiing.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.