Halfpipe podium points to sky in Sarah Burke tribute

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Serious history was made in many ways Thursday night when women’s freestyle skiing halfpipe debuted as a part of the Olympic program, but that’s only the beginning of it.

Maddie Bowman became the youngest American to win a gold medal during the Sochi Games.

France’s Marie Martinod put the capstone on her career by returning from retirement to take silver, which – when combined with the French sweep (the first time in Winter Olympic history) in ski cross – made for the most medals France had ever earned in a single day.

What was the most historical, though, was when the women on the podium pointed to the sky to pay tribute to Sarah Burke.

WATCH: Flower ceremony for freestyle halpipe

“Sarah Burke is watching over us tonight, and we just want to honor her as much as we can,” said Bowman, who first met her freeski idol at an X Games event years back.

This event was not about the evolution of tricks, the scores that were garnered or even the medals that were awarded. This event was about the feeling of the occasion and what it meant to the riders to be a part of something that was so important to their late friend.

Burke, four-time X Games champion, tragically passed while training only two years prior to her goal of Olympic inclusion being realized firsthand. Considered by her freeski colleagues to be the most pivotal person in ushering their sport into the Olympics, the night’s highs and lows were not due to the actual events that unfolded, but to the memories of Burke and the wish that she could have been a part of the event itself.

Leading into the Games, stickers were donned across the gear of the majority of the skiers, as well as a fair amount of their snowboarding counterparts. Burke was an inspiration to most and to ride with a “Celebrate Sarah” sticker meant to ride with pride.

However as the Games began, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deemed the stickers to be a political statement and therefore illegal to promote on their equipment.

The point to the sky was a response that could not be stopped.

WATCH: Bowman’s gold-medal highlights

“I pointed to the sky because the IOC did not want us to wear [the stickers] on our helmets. So, we all decided we would point to the sky as a sign of respect for Sarah,” said Martinod, who was a dear friend to Burke.

Martinod has a unique story with relation to not only Burke, but as to how she ultimately came to be a part of Thursday’s event at all.

Years ago, Martinod had retired from the world of competitive skiing. In part because she had a daughter to take care of and be close to and “saw that life had some treasures” for her outside of skiing. Martinod opened a nightclub that she ran but sold last year just before returning to the World Cup circuit.

Why did she sell the nightclub and return to competitive skiing despite thinking she would never make such a return? Because Burke asked her to.

“[Sarah] had this contest in La Plagne [France] next to my place and after the contest she passed by,” reminisced Martinod. “She said, ‘Marie I just want you to know that I’m working [getting halfpipe] into the Olympics. It’s going to happen, for sure, and you should think about coming back.’ That was the last time that I saw her.”

Burke passed away only a matter of months after that.

“I did what she wanted me to do.”

The story of Burke is one that will never be forgotten in the hearts of these Winter Olympians, and the symbolic gesture of pointing to the sky was something that should go down in Olympic history as a story for the ages.

Celebrate Sarah.

Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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