Krasnaya Polyana, Russia • The lasting image of freestyle skiing pioneer Sarah Burke is her ever-present smile, the one that helped inspire kids across Canada to slap on their skis and open their minds.
In an event that Burke’s extraordinary vision helped bring to the Olympics, Dara Howell channeled her idol’s style.
Mouth agape after a spectacular run on slush more suited for a snowcone, Howell continued Canada’s dominance at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park by soaring to gold as women’s slopestyle skiing made a sometimes inauspicious Olympic debut.
"I said the other day that I really hope a Canadian brings home a gold medal and it will be for Sarah," Howell said. "This medal is definitely for Sarah. She pushed the sport."
Burke died in 2012 at age 29 following an accident while training on the halfpipe.
A charismatic and accomplished performer and one of the key players in expanding freestyle skiing’s role in the Olympics, she served as a role model to a large swath of the Canadian freestyle team, including the 19-year-old who found herself atop a podium Tuesday.
"She always wanted to see the progression," Howell said. "To see the girls throwing what the guys were throwing ... today I feel like that’s what I did."
Howell unleashed a switch-900 — an off-axis spin that includes 2 1/2 rotations — during a run that finished with a score of 94.20, trouncing the rest of the field on a warm and sometimes frightening day.
Devin Logan of the United States took silver. Kim Lamarre earned bronze to give Canada seven medals in four days of snowboarding and freestyle skiing, including three events in which they took two of the three spots on the podium.
"We’re over the moon right now," said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Skiing Association. "Our target was to get six total — and we still have a few events left."
Howell’s triumph was tempered by a series of frightening crashes, including one by teammate Yuki Tsubota. That ended with Tsubota being carried off the mountain on a stretcher with a possible fractured jaw. Russian Anna Mirtova wiped out during both of her final runs and said she’s heading for knee surgery.
"It was tough conditions," Lamarre said. "It’s not easy for speed on slushy snow. You can’t always be perfect and land everything."
Maybe, but Logan conceded that the Canadians are more perfect than most at the moment. While the U.S. grabbed gold in both men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboarding over the weekend, Canada has dominated everything else. Slopestyle snowboarder Mark McMorris earned bronze, and Canada went 1-2 in both men’s and women’s moguls.
"They’re really good as you can see," Logan said. "They’re definitely giving us a run for the money. It helps us progress our sport. It’s nice having a little bit of a rivalry trying to beat them or one up them."
Only Logan’s acrobatic run to an 85.40 in the slopestyle skiing finals prevented the top of the podium from being covered with the Maple Leaf flag. Logan’s medal-winning sprint included a frontside 720-degree spin in which she gamely held on while landing.
Logan, who is from West Dover, Vermont, but now lives in Oceanside, Calif., turns 21 next Monday.
After a soul-testing stretch that included two comebacks from a torn ACL in her right knee, her celebration includes a trip to Las Vegas and adding a tattoo.
"Not of the Olympic rings," she added with a laugh.
Howell’s plans are more demure, including a trip back to Canada to ski with her 99-year-old grandfather, who still finds a way to get out on the mountain near her hometown of Huntsville, Ontario, every day. The two chatted briefly after her victory, a conversation that included a lot of screaming if not a lot of detail about what Howell just had done.
"He tries his best to understand it," she said. "I don’t think he’s got it yet."
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