“To see me pull it off — I don’t know, I’m still in shock,” she said. “I didn’t know I could do that.”
Thad and Julie Sigourney knew instantly what it all meant. They had spent years going to freestyle skiing competitions, trying not to avert their eyes. They had watched their daughter land so many times not on a podium but a hospital bed. What did it take to reach the Olympics? Only eight surgeries — broken bones and torn ligaments from Sigourney’s ankle to her collarbone and just about everywhere in between.
What do you say when you’re the parent of a daughter who thrives off adrenaline so much that she might as well have a frequent-customer punch card to her neighborhood surgeon? Urge her to find a safer pursuit, perhaps?
“I bit my tongue until blood came out of the corner of my mouth,” Thad Sigourney said.
It was hard not to think of all this Tuesday at Phoenix Snow Park, where the 28-year-old from Carmel, Calif., with a body that’s been patched and repaired several times over, took bronze in the women’s ski halfpipe. Her impressive final run vaulted her from fourth place to third, nudging fellow American Annalisa Drew off the podium.
For Sigourney, Tuesday marked the apex of a long journey. She turned in a sixth-place finish four years ago at the Sochi Games and had no guarantees her body would hold up and allow her to return to the Olympic stage.
“I think I wanted it more this time. At my first Olympics, I just didn’t know what to expect, and I was just so happy to be there,” she said. “But this time, I really wanted it.”
Her top performance at the world championships was a sixth-place finish, and that came way back in 2011. Her best finishes at the Winter X Games included a pair of silvers. The second one came just last month in Aspen, Colo., a full seven years since her first second-place finish there.
“I’ve been working on the mental game all year, and it’s definitely paid off,” Sigourney said. “Just having a lot of confidence has helped me over the past few events.”
She will happily accept this PyeongChang medal, but she doesn’t need a mantel full of awards to know how far she has come. Her medical charts tell the story: Sigourney has broken her collarbone, torn an anterior cruciate ligament, busted her pelvis, broken her knee cap and torn a ligament in her thumb.
“It definitely helps to have an Olympic medal to prove everything I’ve overcome was worth it,” she said. “All those surgeries were worth it. It was worth it to keep fighting, and all that rehab and physical therapy I’ve done was worth it.”
But why even stick with it? Hers is a sport where you don’t launch into the air unless you have a plan. She didn’t want to stick with the sport — she wanted to keep pushing it forward.
“She was so determined,” Julie Sigourney said. “It made me crazy. ‘To progress the sport’ — if I ever heard that again, I was just going to scream.”
Once, Sigourney went in for shoulder surgery and came out to the news that her shoulder was fine but her knee needed to go under the knife as well. No shoulder meant no crutches, which put Sigourney in a wheelchair for three months. For a while there, it felt like every year brought some new medical calamity. Sigourney called those stretches “the struggle bus.”
“And sometimes the bus just didn’t want to let her out,” Thad Sigourney said.
But the past couple of years, her body has held up, and she had worked hard to catch up to peers who didn’t miss long stretches of training. Sigourney clawed her way back to the sport’s biggest stage, one more chance to help raise the bar.
She entered Tuesday’s finals with the third-best score from qualifying and came out of the gates strong. Her 89.80 mark put her in third after one run in the three-round finals. That stood as Sigourney’s top score until her final run, when she stood in fourth place. Drew had just earned a 90.80, putting her in position for a medal and potentially bumping Sigourney from the podium.
Sigourney needed a big run and left nothing to chance, going higher and bigger and impressing the judges enough to earn a 91.60 and overtake her teammate. Canada’s Cassie Sharpe posted the day’s top score of 95.80 to win gold, while France’s Marie Martinod, the 33-year-old who took silver four years ago in Sochi, again finished in second with a score of 92.60.
While Drew had to settle for fourth place, fellow American Maddie Bowman finished last out of the 11 competitors who skied in the finals. Bowman, who won gold four years ago when the women’s ski halfpipe debuted at the Olympics, took a tumble late in each of her three finals runs. On the last, she appeared to hit the back of her head on the ground and momentarily laid still on the snow. She was helped up by medical personnel, eventually rising to her feet and skiing out of the pipe on her own.
When it was all over, Sigourney found her parents in the crowd. The U.S. flag was draped over the skier’s shoulders and, when they hugged, the whole family was enveloped in it.
“It’s hard to be a parent. I’d rather be a connected friend or a spectator,” Thad Sigourney said. “Being a parent is pretty tough on mom and dad at times.”
On many other times — on magical days like Tuesday, for example — it couldn’t possibly be more worth it.
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