Ski halfpipe makes emotional debut
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- "I did it, Mom. Wow!" The first women's ski halfpipe gold medalist in Olympic history had just jumped a barrier dividing an hour of post-contest media interviews from her family, an American flag draped around her shoulders and a smile fixed beneath her navy Team USA beanie. Then Maddie Bowman disappeared into a swarm of red, white and blue hugs.
"We're so proud of you," her mom, Sue, said as she wrapped her daughter in her arms. She'd waited a long time for this hug and she wasn't in a hurry to let her go. "So, so proud," her dad, Bill, echoed as he stepped in for his squeeze. Bowman's younger brother, Alec, put his hand on her back and then hugged her the way proud brothers do: intensely, but not for too long.
From a few feet away, Grandma clasped her hands in front of her face and smiled. "I knew she could win," Lorna Perpall said. "And I wouldn't have let her come without me." Grandma Lorna saved for two years to be in Sochi, never spending her $5 bills and sometimes buying them from friends to speed up the process. Bowman's family knew this day would come, and they wanted to be prepared. "It hasn't sunk in yet," Sue said. "I'm still in shock."
A few yards away, another set of parents stood near the bottom of the halfpipe hugging daughter after daughter, coach after coach, as a long line of men and women from the ski industry stopped by to tell them how happy they were to see them, how proud they are of their daughter, how proud she would have been of this night. "Sarah's the reason we're all here," Bowman said. "Without Sarah, none of us would be Olympians."
Gord Burke and Jan Phelan had prepared for this day, too. They'd visualized what it would be like to wear Team Canada colors and hug their daughter after she skied to the bottom of the halfpipe and conducted TV interviews about her determined work to convince the IOC that freeskiing should be included in the Olympics. After Sarah Burke's death two years ago due to injuries sustained in a crash while training in the Park City halfpipe, less than a year after the IOC voted to include freeskiing in the Sochi Games, their vision of this day changed. But their desire to be a part of it didn't. They knew they wanted to be in Russia to support the sport their daughter had so loved and see her dream completed. "It's overwhelming," Jan said as the three medalists -- Bowman, Marie Martinod of France and Ayana Onozuka of Japan -- stepped onto the podium. "This was better than I'd hoped, better than I'd expected. Sarah would have been proud."
Although they weren't able to watch their own daughter ski in the Olympics Thursday night, in many ways Jan and Gord witnessed many of their children drop into the Sochi halfpipe. "I'm so fond of so many of these athletes and so many feel like family," Gord said. "I should be rooting for Canada, but it's hard. I have such wonderful memories of so many of these girls."
Such as that time at the 2003 X Games Global Championship in Whistler, when Burke and Martinod tied scarves around their ski pants, more interested in who was wearing the better flair than who landed the best flairs. Back then, Martinod, now 29, was the wild-child Frenchwoman whose English was limited to the 15 or so swear words her fellow skiers had taught her.
Thursday night, with her 4-year-old daughter, Melirose, by her side, Martinod completed her return to the sport after a five-year absence by winning an Olympic silver medal. It had been Sarah who convinced Martinod to return to competition after learning halfpipe would be included in the Games. "It was the last conversation we had," Martinod said. "I'd been out too long. I didn't think it was possible. But tonight, anything is possible. I never said goodbye to Sarah. But now I fulfilled her dream for me. Tonight, I can finally say goodbye."
Or how Burke and her Canadian teammate Roz Groenewoud would stand at the top of the halfpipe before a contest and say, "1-2, 1-2, me and you." Each woman believed she was the "1" in that scenario, but was always happy to see the other finish on top. "I wish she was with me today," said Groenewoud, who finished seventh. "There were a lot of ups and downs tonight and a lot of crashes from the top women. I think the emotion of the night got to us all."
There were the days after Sarah's crash that American skier Angeli VanLaanen, who finished eleventh, spent in the hospital by Burke's bedside, bringing salads and sandwiches for her family and friends. Even though she herself had recently been diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease and was attached to an IV of antibiotics for several hours a day, VanLaanen refused to leave her friend's side. "She was there every day," Gord said. "How could I not be here to support her?"
In her first run of finals, VanLaanen crashed hard and smashed her face into the hard snow, her goggles cutting her nose and the ice fattening her upper lip. She skied her second run with a bandage on her nose and a smile on her face. "It happens," she said, acknowledging that Burke, known for her unforgiving toughness, would have been proud she dusted herself off and went back to the top of the pipe to take her second run. "I'm so honored to be a part of tonight," she said. "I think about all the sacrifices women like Sarah made so we could be here. I had a moment to think about what it took for me to get here and what she did to help me achieve this dream. It's an incredible night."
At the beginning of the Games, many skiers arrived in Sochi wearing "Sarah" stickers on their helmets and white armbands embroidered with her name and a black snowflake like the one she had tattooed on her foot. Since the 2012 Winter X Games, which took place less than two weeks after Burke's death, they had worn them as symbols of her commitment to their sport and their commitment to continue her work. They were also a way to remember their friend and "Celebrate Sarah." When the IOC declared neither would be allowed in Sochi because the gestures violate rules prohibiting the wearing of messages on Olympic uniforms or equipment and are considered to be "political statements," many athletes spoke out in the media.
"It wasn't like they made them last month to make a statement at the Olympics," Jan said. "They'd been wearing them for two years." Burke's teammates and peers were emotional not because they were told they wouldn't be allowed to wear a sticker on their equipment. It was that, after two years, they were being asked to take them off. "It's really not about a sticker," Jan said. "It's about Sarah's legacy and friendships. What I'm most proud of is all the love and the solidarity that the men and women are showing by honoring Sarah."
After winning the first Olympic gold medal in women's slopestyle, Canadian skier Dara Howell dedicated her medal to Burke. So did her Canadian teammate Mike Riddle after taking silver in Tuesday's men's ski halfpipe event. That night, at the Canada House in the Olympic Village in Adler, Riddle and several members of the Canadian freeski team held a toast to Burke.
In her first event of the 2014 Games, Australian snowboarder Torah Bright, one of Burke's closest friends, tied a white "Sarah" armband around her binding, where it would be visible when she held her board up for the TV cameras in the finish area. "I thought I would get in trouble," Bright said. "But Sarah would have thought it was badass."
The retelling of that story on Thursday night triggered another memory from Burke's mother. In 2004, Burke began lobbying ESPN to include a division for women skiers at its annual Winter X Games. "But the guys from ESPN didn't believe there were enough women who could do big tricks to hold a contest," Jan said. So Burke went home and made a list. She wrote down the name of every woman in freeskiing and what tricks she could do. Then she hand delivered it to the organizers of the event.
"The next year, ESPN added women's freeskiing to the X Games," Jan said. Nine years later, the first freeskiing contests were held at the Olympics. At the 2001 U.S. Open in Vail, Colo., Burke and American skier Kristi Leskinen were the only women who showed up at the contest. So they competed against the men. On Thursday night, women from three nations stood on an Olympic podium together.
Not far away, two proud sets of parents looked on and smiled.