KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (CBSNewYork/AP) — Sarah Burke’s parents looked up the hill and saw the halfpipe workers making one last trip down in the formation of a heart.
They looked the other direction and saw the scoreboard: Maddie Bowman of the United States won gold, Marie Martinod of France took silver and Ayana Onozuka of Japan took bronze.
All around them Thursday, Burke’s parents saw their late daughter’s dreams play out on a crisp, clear night in the mountains above Sochi — a night her dad, Gord Burke, called “perfect.” His daughter had succeeded not only in bringing women’s halfpipe skiing to the Olympics, but also to the world.
“Far beyond what I thought it would be,” said Gord Burke, who traveled to Russia from Toronto and spent the entire night smiling. “I never really imagined so much love for one person. So much passion and energy.”
Burke was the Canadian freeskiing icon — a four-time winner of the Winter X Games — who fought hard, first to get women involved in her sport, then to take it to the highest level.
“If she wasn’t skiing in the pipe, progressing the sport, she was talking to the right people and sending the right emails,” said Burke’s husband, Rory Bushfield. “Gracefully is how she did it.”
The International Olympic Committee added halfpipe and slopestyle skiing to the program in 2011. Less than a year later, Burke died after suffering fatal injuries during a training run in the halfpipe. She was 29 and would have almost certainly been the favorite in this event had she been here.
This was still her night, and none of the 23 skiers who dropped into the pipe could argue with that.
Including the gold-medal winner, Bowman. The 20-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., felt like an outsider when she started in the sport and called meeting Burke “the coolest moment of my life.”
“The first time she met Sarah, she was off by herself,” said Bowman’s mom, Susan. “Sarah saw that she was by herself and brought her over, introduced herself and brought her into the group. It was pretty amazing.”
The silver medalist, Martinod, quit the sport seven years ago. She had a daughter, Melirose, and worked at a nightclub back home in France. One day about three years ago, Burke came knocking on her door, telling her she needed to un-retire, because the show was going to the Olympics and she wanted to make sure all the best women were there.
“I’m thinking of Sarah every day,” said the 29-year-old Frenchwoman, who painted snowflakes on her fingernails to match the tattoo Burke had on her foot. “I think I didn’t say goodbye to Sarah yet and I still have to do it, and now I feel I’m able to do it because I did what she asked me to do.”
The bronze medalist, Onozuka, was an Alpine skier before Burke helped get her version of freestyle skiing into the Olympics. That opened up opportunities in Japan, which has won three medals in the halfpipe at the Sochi Games — the other two came in men’s snowboarding.
“I decided to take up a new profession,” Onozuka said.
Burke’s mom, Jan Phelan, wore a bright purple jacket over an aqua T-shirt that said “Dream Without Fear” — a credo the family uses to promote the Sarah Burke Foundation, which funds winter sports athletes who need a boost.
For a while now, Bushfield, Phelan and Gord Burke have known this trip was coming. They didn’t hesitate to make it.
“It was Sarah’s dream to be here, so, we’re here,” Phelan said. “The halfpipe is opening for the women and I miss her like crazy. It really hasn’t been too hard until right now. The moment.”
Burke’s father spent the contest shifting attention between the action in the halfpipe to the people who came to meet him and shake his hand. He shared stories, including a few about the early days, when his daughter would head to men-only contests and ask, politely, if she could sign up.
“They’d say, ‘We’d love to have you but we can’t give you a girl’s event if there are no girls,'” Burke said. “So, she’d ski against the guys. Then, she’d be out there encouraging her friends to get involved. She just had that dream that the girls could have fun out there, too.”
They had fun Thursday night. Bowman was the star.
Her runs were technically precise and high flying. The winning score of 89 came thanks to one straight-air jump more than 10 feet above the halfpipe, followed by a pair of 900-degree spins, along with two 720-degree spins, one of which she landed backward.
But the most winning moment may have come a few minutes after her first run, when one of Bowman’s main competitors, American Brita Sigourney, fell hard and scraped her face on the bottom of the pipe, leaving a nasty gash in her nose. Sigourney’s coaches and medical staff rushed out to help her. Rushing up right behind them in her ski boots was the woman wearing bib No. 2 — Bowman.
“I think all the girls came out here and showed the world who we are and what we do,” she said. “I think everyone should be proud of that tonight.”
Long after Bowman had sealed her win and the music and the fanfare had ebbed, Burke’s parents lingered in the stands, going over the evening.
The consensus: A beautiful night.
“The spirit here was so good,” Phelan said. “Sarah would’ve loved it.”
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