In late 2013, Maddie Bowman told Mother Jones magazine that she left Alpine skiing for freestyle because life as a racer felt “a little too serious—a little too strict.”
No need to rethink that move.
The carefree spirit Bowman yearned for was on full display on Thursday during the finals of the women's freestyle skiing halfpipe, as the Team USA rider soared to the first ever Olympic gold medal in that event.
The women of the pipe were competing for serious hardware on this day in Sochi, but you wouldn’t know it watching them.
Bowman took the lead during her first run of the final round, throwing back-to-back 900s off opposite walls of the course before adding a switch 720 near the end of her run. Her second trip down the hill was even stronger, and as she got to the bottom, one of the skiers who had been right on her heels came out to meet her with a hug.
“You did it!” exclaimed Japan’s Ayana Onozuka as the two embraced.
Actually, Bowman hadn’t quite done it. Not yet. France’s Marie Martinod had yet to embark on her second ride and an amazing performance from her might have kept Bowman from the top of the medal stand.
In fact, had Bowman’s runs been a little less stellar, Onozuka’s own fortunes may have been improved.
At the bottom of the hill, though, none of that seemed to matter.
Martinod made her run—it was good enough for silver, but not great enough to unseat Bowman—and then the three medalists stood around hugging and laughing, looking more like teammates than foes.
Maybe that’s freestyle skiing in a nutshell.
Maybe that’s the happy-go-lucky atmosphere that led Bowman to ditch the rigors of Alpine skiing for an event where she would feel more at home—and where she would excel.
The 20-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., came to the 2014 Winter Games as one of the gold-medal favorites after back-to-back X Games championships in superpipe.
Teammate Brita Sigourney and Bowman qualified as Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, during their early runs on Thursday, setting the stage for Bowman’s history-making showing in the final.
Not that the moment appeared to wow her in the slightest.
While other competitors fell by the wayside, Bowman seemed unaffected by the spotlight.
Medal favorite Anais Caradeux of France withdrew after a hard fall in qualifying. Bleacher Report gold-medal pick Virginie Faivre of Switzerland also underwhelmed, after missing most of this season with a back injury.
American teammate Angeli Vanlaanen fell and cut the bridge of her nose on the hard-packed snow. When Sigourney also toppled during her first run and for a moment laid motionless at the bottom of the pipe, Bowman ran out to check on her along with the medical personnel.
Still, Bowman sailed through it all without much trouble, scoring an 89.00 in the final round to edge Martinod's total of 85.40 and Onozuka's 83.20.
The victory gave the Americans a sweep of skiing halfpipe, after David Wise took gold in the men’s competition on Tuesday.
It also arguably showed the Winter Games the way of the future, as the addition of extreme, X Games-style events like slopestyle and halfpipe are slowly but surely giving Olympic culture a modern facelift.
The youth-friendly sports add a casual swagger and much-needed marketability to the Games, providing the kind of cool you just don’t get from speedskating or curling.
They’re bringing words like “spoice” and “amplitude” to the general lexicon and doing their part to put a fresh spin on the Olympics, which are sometimes shortchanged as boring or stodgy by mainstream viewers.
If you can make the argument that these sports are here to stay, then Team USA faces a brave new world of Olympic competition fully prepared to shred, winning six gold medals at Sochi’s Rosa Khutor Extreme Park during the past couple of weeks.
The gravity of the moment may have finally caught up with Bowman when she stepped on the medal stand. For the first time, an emotion other than stoked filled her eyes as she accepted the traditional bouquet of flowers and soaked in the cheers from the adoring crowd.
As she jumped off the podium, however, she couldn’t resist one more goofy show of flair.
Just before sticking the landing, Bowman clicked the heels of her ski boots together.