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.

Kristi Yamaguchi tells Nancy Kerrigan to ‘break a leg’ on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

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Kristi Yamaguchi told Nancy Kerrigan to “break a leg” on her “Dancing with the Stars” debut, an innocent tweet between friends that generated plenty of reaction.

“So excited for you @NancyAKerrigan ! Can’t wait to see you grace that ballroom floor, break a leg! #DWTS,” was posted on Yamaguchi’s account Monday morning.

It generated more than 6,000 likes, 3,000 retweets and 1,000 replies, many referencing the horrible attack on Kerrigan before the 1994 U.S. Championships (where Kerrigan’s knee was bruised, but not broken).

The tweet conjured memories of T-shirts sold leading up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics with the words “Harding-Kerrigan” on the front and “Norway ’94, Break a Leg!!!” on the back, reported by major media 23 years ago.

Yamaguchi and Kerrigan shared world championships and Olympic podiums in 1991 and 1992 (Yamaguchi winning both times; Kerrigan with bronze).

They remain friends. Kerrigan said she spoke with Yamaguchi, a past “Dancing with the Stars” winner, about the experience, according to TeamUSA.org.

“I said to Kristi, ‘You’ve seen me at shows, Kris, how demanding is it?’” Kerrigan said, according to the report. “She said it’s very demanding, but you have to do it. She’s like, ‘You’ve been through worse, you have to do it, it’s such a great experience.’”

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VIDEO: Nancy Kerrigan’s first ‘Dancing with the Stars’ waltz

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.