Krasnaya Polyana, Russia -- Maddie Bowman won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the women’s ski-halfpipe. But the breakout star of the evening may have been her maternal grandmother, one Lorna Perpall, a serene, smiling voice teacher and theater aficionado who has read the entire Harry Potter oeuvre to her grandchildren -- making each character distinct, of course -- and who exudes an air of dignified refinement. So it came as a surprise to see Lorna, while celebrating Maddie’s victory at the bottom of the pipe, unzipping her jacket to reveal a t-shirt bearing the legend “BADASS GRANDMA.”
It runs in the family. Bowman, 20, is the daughter of ski racers who was turning out to be a fine racer herself, until she informed her parents, around the age of 13, that it was all getting a bit heavy for her. “Skiing was fun for me – I didn’t want to take it so seriously,” says Maddie, who on powder days was always the one sitting in the car shouting at her parents, “Don’t bother shoveling the driveway, let’s GO!”
She joined the “Freeride” team at her home resort, Sierra at Tahoe, and soon gravitated to the halfpipe. She had some early success and felt good enough about herself to “tag” the back of the family garage. Next to her name, she spray-pointed a giant star, as if to say: Maddie is a star.
She knew something. Two years ago, as a relative unknown, she won silver at X Games. She won gold at X a year later and successfully defended her title in Aspen last month. Bowman finished second, first and first in the last three Olympic qualifiers and arrived in Sochi on a serious roll.
To paraphrase the Bard, uneasy lies the head of the prohibitive favorite. As Shaun White and South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na and the Russian hockey team can all attest, the pressure of those expectations can be stifling. And Bowman seemed to be feeling that pressure in the moments before she dropped in for her first run of the finals.
"I felt like I was going to barf," she recalled.
That moment passed. Skating toward the pipe and then dropping in with the aggression of the ski-racer she was, she soared and twisted her way through a series of a highly technical spins beyond the reach, frankly, of all but a handful of her competitors. Bowman’s first run score of 85.80 was good enough for gold. She improved on it with a second run that linked back-to-back 900-degree spins – frontside, then backside – and earned an 89.
She is a smiling free spirit who had her nose pierced during her senior trip to Disneyland (“It’s your face,” said her mother, Sue); who has been warned by the local constabulary for playing the music too loudly in her car; and who has been known to exceed the speed limit while driving the one-lane road to Fallen Leaf Lake, where the Bowmans keep a waterskiing boat.
Beneath the loopy, winsome, nose-ringed exterior is a will of iron. Though wiry and undersized, she was a leader on two state championship soccer teams. “She’s always been mentally tough,” says Sue, “and part of the reason is that she has great self-esteem.” Sue helped cultivate it. “My job was to make sure she had all the tools to know how great she was.”
Sue is a nurse, and nurses, she generalizes, “tend to cut through the bulls---.” Indeed, between Maddie’s qualifying runs on Wednesday, her husband waxed rhapsodic about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from which he hails.
Sue’s succinct, contrarian take on the UP: “Everybody drinks, and works at the mill.”
An ardent ski racer, she was also skeptical of the “Freeride” team. During Maddie’s first season, when she and her teammates went out into the terrain park, or the halfpipe, or deep powder, Sue sometimes tagged along.
“I realized pretty quick that there is a science and a progression to what they do” that’s not necessarily apparent to the uninitiated.
For years that progression was propelled by the Canadian free-skier Sarah Burke, the driving force behind getting ski halfpipe into the Olympic program. Burke died after crashing on a practice run two years ago, at the age of 29. Rider after rider paid tribute to her on Wednesday night. Silver medalist Marie Martinod of France had retired from the sport when Burke paid her a visit. “She told me that halfpipe is going to be in the Olympics, you have to come.” After dismissing the idea out of hand, Martinod changed her mind after realizing that it would drive her crazy to “watch it on the couch on television.”
She spent the season traveling with her two-year-old daughter, Melirose, who watched her Mom from the bottom of the pipe. While American medal favorite Brita Sigourney tumbled out the medals when she butt-checked a landing on her second finals run, Martinod’s runs were stylish and clean.
Her medal, she said, shows “that you can be a woman, mother and an athlete.”
And a badass.