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.

Katie Ledecky beaten in NCAA Championships individual medley

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Katie Ledecky lost an NCAA Championships race for the first time in eight career finals, taking second in the 400-yard individual medley on Friday.

Stanford teammate Ella Eastin easily beat Ledecky by 3.69 seconds and grabbed the American and NCAA records from Ledecky, too. Eastin’s 3:54.60 is 1.93 seconds faster than Ledecky’s time from the Pac-12 Championships last month.

How did she do it?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Eastin said on ESPNU. “I’ve built a lot of endurance this year, and it really showed.”

Eastin is decorated in her own right. She three-peated as NCAA 400-yard IM champion and held the American record in the event before Ledecky lowered it last month.

Eastin would have made the 2017 World Championships team had she not been disqualified for an illegal turn after finishing in second place at nationals.

Ledecky, a sophomore, has never contested the 400m IM at a U.S. Championships, Olympics or world championships, nor did she race the 400-yard IM at 2017 NCAAs. She raced the 400 IM instead of the 200 freestyle on Friday.

All of Ledecky’s races at major meets before Friday were in freestyle events. Her only defeat in a major international meet individual final was the 200m freestyle at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky won five NCAA titles last year and the last two nights anchored the 800-yard freestyle relay and captured the 500-yard freestyle by eight seconds.

Meet results are here.

Later Friday, Lilly King of Indiana three-peated in the 100-yard breaststroke, breaking her American and NCAA records and winning in 56.25 seconds. King is also the Olympic and world champion in the 100m breast, plus the world-record holder.

“Always excited to get the record, but was really hoping to break 56 today,” King said.

Louisville’s Mallory Comerford became the second woman after Missy Franklin to break 1:40 in the 200-yard freestyle, winning in 1:39.80. Co-Olympic 100m free champ Simone Manuel of Stanford was third. Comerford and Ledecky tied for the 2017 NCAA 200 free title.

Stanford’s Ally Howe won the 100-yard backstroke in 49.70, one hundredth shy of her NCAA and American records. Olympic 100m backstroke silver medalist Kathleen Baker of Cal-Berkeley was third.

NCAAs conclude Saturday. Ledecky swims the 1,650-yard freestyle. She is the overwhelming favorite, having gone 35 seconds faster than anyone this season.

Ledecky hasn’t discussed with Stanford whether she will return for her junior season or turn pro, according to the school.

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World vault champion out for all of 2018

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Maria Paseka, a two-time world vault champion and four-time Olympic medalist, said she is out for the rest of the year after December back surgery, according to Russian news agency TASS.

Paseka, 22, earned the lone Russian title at worlds in October, repeating as champion on vault by edging American Jade Carey by .084. She handed Simone Biles her only defeat in a 2015 Worlds final, also on vault.

Paseka also took vault silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics, as well as helping Russia to team silvers in London and Rio.

As Paseka is sidelined, Russia’s two other recent headliners are on the comeback trail.

Viktoria Komova, the all-around silver medalist at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics who missed Rio due to a back injury, competed in December for the first time since 2015.

Aliya Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist with two uneven bars golds, is expected to return to competition this spring from June childbirth.

The world championships are in Doha in October.

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