KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — About nine months ago, Lorna Perpall saw her granddaughter, always so smooth and so graceful on a pair of skis, winning an Olympic gold medal. But it was only a dream.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s my wishful thinking,’ ” Perpall said.
But on Thursday night, there was Perpall, 78, as close to the action as possible. She had a red, white and blue scarf draped over her head and wore a t-shirt that read “Bad--- Grandma.” This time she was wide awake, but she still felt like she was floating through another world.
“It’s just such an incredible feeling,” Perpall said. “It’s really quite indescribable.”
The nervousness and excitement are wholly different when you’re helplessly watching a grandchild spin, twist and fall through the air. With skis and ski poles pointed every which direction, Maddie Bowman looked like a helicopter as she twirled above the halfpipe. She couldn’t have gotten much higher than she did Thursday, flying to the top step of the medal podium. Bowman, 20, won gold in the women’s ski halfpipe event with a dominating performance, a dream no one in the family cares to wake up from.
“This doesn’t really seem real to me,” Bowman said later.
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The entire event was taxing on the nerves of the tight-knit group from just outside of Lake Tahoe, Calif.
“I was nervous as all heck,” said Bowman’s father, Bill, a head clerk at a grocery store back home.
He spent Thursday night at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park constantly rattling a bell, the only thing he seemed to have control over, as he stared at the top of the pipe, where his daughter was among the medal favorites in an event that made its debut at these Olympic Games. And from up top, she was looking straight down. “I felt like I was going to barf,” she said.
Bowman instead calmly dropped into the pipe, and it all unfolded just like her grandmother's dream. The young freeskier pulled off two 900-degree spins, plus a pair of 720s for good measure. Bowman, who has won gold at the past two Winter X Games, posted a score of 85.80 and set a high bar with her first run in the finals.
She led at the midway point and watched as skier after skier fell short on their second runs. With a gold all but locked up, Bowman dropped in again, this time feeling much less pressure, and put together a run that would show everyone why her young sport belongs on the Olympic stage.
“She has incredible focus,” said her grandmother, who’s from Placerville, Calif. “I have seen her narrow her focus on things she’s working on, whether it’s calculus homework or perfecting a trick.”
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Bowman went spinning through the air, even better this time. The judges gave her an 89.00, which means she posted the two best scores of the finals round. France’s Marie Martinod finished a distant second, and Japan’s Ayana Onozuka took home bronze.
“I can’t believe it just happened,” Bowman said.
Three other Americans reached the finals but failed to find the podium. Brita Sigourney, who posted the second-highest score in the qualifying round, finished in sixth place with a high score of 76.00. Sigourney, 24, started strong on her first run but suffered a bad crash attempting a 720. Medical personnel ran out to treat her — as did Bowman — but Sigourney was able to ski off on her own and returned for her second run.
After the final scores were posted, Sigourney embraced Bowman, her best friend, at the base of the pipe.
“She said that she wanted me to win and she’s so proud of me,” Sigourney said. “I told her to shut up because she deserves this more than anyone.”
These Sochi Games marked the debut of the ski halfpipe. American David Wise won gold in the men’s event Tuesday.
For the women Thursday night, there was one important person who was absent — but who never felt far away. Sarah Burke was a halfpipe pioneer, lobbying for the sport to be included in the Olympics. The Canadian freestyle skier won gold at the Winter X Games four times but tragically died as a result of injuries suffered in training two years ago.
“Sarah’s inspired us on snow and off snow. I think she would’ve been very proud of how all the girls rode tonight,” Bowman said. “I sure hope that I and everyone else made her proud because we would not be there without her.”