KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — This one was for Sarah.
Her braid whipping in the chilly mountain air, Maddie Bowman of the U.S. soared to the first-ever gold medal in women’s Olympic halfpipe skiing on Thursday, edging Marie Martinod of France in the final on a night the sport paid tribute to late Canadian freestyle skiing icon Sarah Burke.
Burke, a leading advocate of adding several events — including halfpipe — to the Olympic program, died following a training accident in 2012. Her parents, Gordon Burke and Jan Phelan, watched as Bowman made history.
“It was Sarah’s dream to be here,” Phelan said. “So, it’s here. The halfpipe is opening for the women and I miss her like crazy.”
The athletes Burke championed tried to rise to the occasion, Bowman in particular.
“Sarah has inspired us on snow or off snow,” Bowman said. “I think she would have been very proud of how all the girls rode tonight. ... I hope I and all the other girls made her proud. We wouldn’t have been here without her.”
Bowman showed some of Burke’s tenaciousness in the finals.
The 20-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was just third in qualifying but found a rhythm in the medal round after overcoming some jitters that she joked made her want to “barf.” Stringing along a dizzying series of spins and grabs, Bowman performed the two highest-scoring runs of the night, her massive braid slapping the side of her helmet each time.
Bowman’s first finals run, an 85.80, put pressure on Martinod, who led qualifying. Bowman’s second trip through the halfpipe was even better. She clasped the side of her helmet in disbelief then sat and waited to see if Martinod or American teammate Brita Sigourney could top her.
Sigourney, who washed out in her first finals run, appeared ready to threaten Bowman before her backside skimmed the snow with only one jump off the 22-foot halfpipe left to complete her run.
That left Martinod, who retired in 2007 but returned to the sport in 2012 at the urging of Burke. The 29-year-old Frenchwoman was one of the older performers in the 23-skier field and her introduction included a series of outtakes with her 4-year-old daughter Melirose.
“She’s my everything,” Martinod said. “I keep training and charging and doing what I love because I want her to see how great it is to achieve some goals and be able to reach the point I wanted to be.”
It’s a spot Martinod would not have reached if not pushed by Burke, who casually suggested to Martinod three years ago that it was time to come back. Burke was convinced the halfpipe would be in the Olympics. Martinod was not sure she was up for the challenge after such a long layoff.
“I said, ‘Sarah, I love you, but it’s not possible,’” Martinod said. “It’s too long (a) time. I quit skiing.”
It didn’t look like it in the final. Her 85.40 earned silver and gave her a chance for her to say “goodbye” to Burke. Martinod painted snowflakes on her fingernails in tribute then stood on the podium alongside her daughter in triumph.
“I feel very proud of these women,” Martinod said.
There were several hard crashes during qualifying, the worst coming when Anais Caradeux slammed into the ice during her second run. The 23-year-old Frenchwoman lay motionless for several seconds before being tended to by medics.
Caradeux sustained lacerations on her face but managed to ski down the halfpipe to the medical tent. She qualified ninth but didn’t compete in the finals. Caradeux said afterward she blacked out for 10-to-15 seconds and sustained some short-term memory loss.
She was hardly alone on a sometimes bruising night. Sigourney took a rough fall during her first finals run, with Bowman sprinting up the halfpipe to help her up. She recovered in time to take a second trip down the slope but it wasn’t nearly good enough.
Sigourney blinked back tears of disappointment, though they were soon cast aside during an event that served as a celebration of Burke’s legacy.
“A lot of girls were really pushing themselves,” said Rosalind Groenewoud of Canada, who finished seventh. “I wish (Sarah) could have won tonight if it wasn’t me.”
Bowman’s gold was the sixth for the U.S. at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. She was joined by teammate David Wise — who won gold in the men’s competition Tuesday — atop the medal stand, though Bowman understood the night was about more than just national pride.
“This is first time a lot of people in this world saw what we do and why we love it,” she said.