For days Dara Howell told anyone who would listen that she wanted to see a Canadian win the gold medal in ski slopestyle. Not just for Canada or personal glory, but to celebrate the memory of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke who died two years ago while training.
Burke was not only a close teammate, she had also been a passionate advocate for getting ski slopestyle and halfpipe into the Olympics and she didn’t live to see that dream realized in Sochi.
On Tuesday, Howell became that Canadian, winning the first gold medal ever awarded in an Olympic ski slopestyle competition. “Being that person, I can’t even believe it,” Howell said. “She was such an inspiration to me and everyone else in free skiing that I just think that she would be so proud and happy. It’s truly an honour.”
For Canadian Kim Lamarre, who took bronze, Burke’s influence was even more direct.
“I fell on my first run in finals and right before I [started the second run] I looked up and I said ‘Sarah let’s do this together’. And when I landed I was like ‘yeah Sarah we did it’,” Lamarre said afterward. “I was so happy and honoured to do this and celebrate her in such a big way. I’m very stoked. Yeah, Sarah.”
American Devin Logan took silver and Canadian Yuki Tsubota finished sixth. Tsubota had a bad crash on her final run near the bottom of the hill, jamming her knee into her jaw. She was taken away to a local hospital on a stretcher. Canadian team officials said she was undergoing examinations and would be fine.
Another medal hopeful, Canadian Kaya Turski, didn’t qualify for Tuesday’s final, after crashing in both qualifying runs. She had been ill for two weeks coming in to Sochi and also injured her shoulder during the competition.
Lamarre, a 25-year old from Quebec City, wasn’t even supposed to be in Sochi. She’d been dropped from the national team last fall after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
“I was like, well screw this. I have a chance I’m going to keep putting my heart into it and give my everything," she said. "To actually make it to the Olympics was kind of an exclamation point to my return. But now getting the medal it just makes this magical story even better. I can’t believe it.”
Howell, 19, was considered a favourite going into the event and despite several days of poor training and deteriorating snow conditions, she laid down a near flawless run, so good some coaches said it was the best they had ever seen. Howell scored 94.20, well ahead of Logan at 85.40 and Lamarre who had 85.00. And at just 19-years of age, Howell could be back to defend to her title in 2018.
“It’s amazing to come down and be proud of myself,” she said. “Just to hear the crowd go wild was truly a moment that I never will forget.”
Among the first people to hug her was her father, Doug, who has been by her side in nearly every competition since she took up the sport four years ago. Mr. Howell, who runs a resort near Huntsville, Ont., with his wife Dee, had been a nervous mess for days as he watched his daughter fall and wipe out during training.
“Oh man,” he said with relief Tuesday. “She pulled it out, she did it…It’s surreal.”
Nearby several family members gathered, shouting, cheering and calling hundreds of friends in Huntsville who were at a local ski club to watch the event.
“I’m awed, I’m overwhelmed,” said Jacquie Howell, 78, known among the family as “Crazy Nana” for the long trips she has made to watch her granddaughter compete. “We’re stoked,” she added turning to a relative. “Get it right. You’ve got to use the right term.”
There was one person Howell had to speak to after her race; her grandfather Ken Raven who is in his 90s. Raven lives in Huntsville and skis every day. He is the reason the family took up the sport in the first place and the reason Howell was put on skis at 18 months.
“He’s very proud of me,” Howell said. “He’s like me, it doesn’t feel real yet.”
When asked what she told her grandfather in a phone call right after the event, Howell said: “I just said thanks for always being there.”