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.

Korea Olympic hockey coach takes high school job

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Sarah Murray, who coached the joint Korean Olympic women’s hockey team in PyeongChang, will coach the Owatonna High School girls team in her native Minnesota starting this fall.

Murray has not responded to a request for comment though the school on whether this means she is leaving the South Korean national team program.

Murray, 30, guided the joint Korean Olympic team to an 0-5 record. The tournament underdogs scored in three games and were within two goals of Switzerland.

Three weeks before the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee approved adding 12 North Koreans to the South Korean Olympic women’s hockey team, making it the first joint Korean team in any Olympic event.

Murray initially had mixed feelings.

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s so historic, to have two countries so divided come together through sports,” Murray said in January, according to Yonhap News Agency. “I think the story is great, and to be a part of it is important. But at the same time, it’s mixed feelings because it’s at the expense of, ‘We don’t get to play our full roster.’”

She expressed optimism after the Games.

“We have really enjoyed working with the North’s players and coaches, and we really do want to help them in the future,” Murray said, according to The Associated Press, adding that a possible “exchange game” was discussed to maintain the connection. “They want to get better, they want to keep learning from us and we want to help them. And there are things that we can learn from them, too.”

Murray won two NCAA titles as a player at Minnesota-Duluth. Her father, Andy Murray, spent 10 seasons coaching the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues in the 2000s.

She replaces an Otawonna coach who stepped down to focus on the girls lacrosse program and spend more time with his family.

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MORE: South Korea hockey team misses playing with North Koreans

Michael Phelps launches mental health campaign

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Michael Phelps was hanging at the pool on Tuesday.

No, he’s not planning another comeback.

He’s got a bigger goal to tackle.

Mental health.

After revealing the depths of his depression — and even thoughts of suicide after his second drunken-driving arrest — Phelps is hoping to make a difference for those who are dealing with similar issues.

The 23-time Olympic gold medalist announced a partnership with Talkspace, which provides online therapy, and said he considers it a higher calling than anything he ever did as a swimmer.

“Somebody told me yesterday about his daughter going through a very, very deep depression and not really wanting to be alive,” Phelps said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She read stories about me opening up. He told me how much that helped her. For me, that’s way bigger than ever winning gold medals. The chance to potentially save a life, to give that person an opportunity to grow and learn and help someone else, there’s nothing better in life.”

Despite his unprecedented success as an athlete, Phelps went through plenty of dark moments.

His first DUI arrest came when he was just 19, a few months after he won six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics. He was briefly suspended after a picture emerged of him smoking from a marijuana pipe after his record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. He struggled to get motivated heading into the 2012 Olympics.

But his low point came in 2014, after he abandoned retirement to compete in a fifth Olympics only to be arrested again for driving under the influence. He checked into an Arizona rehab clinic and finally realized just how much he was hurting — so much so, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go on living.

“I thought it would make things easier,” Phelps recalled. “I almost felt like it would be better for everybody if I wasn’t there. But the more I thought about it, I wanted to find a different route. I wanted to see if I could find some help. I wanted to see if I could get better.”

Phelps said he’s in a much better place these days. He’s happily married and living in suburban Phoenix with two small children, 2-year-old Boomer and 3-month-old Beckett. He’s satisfied with his career, saying there’s nothing left to accomplish at the pool.

But there are times that he struggles with depression and anxiety.

He figures it will be that way for the rest of his life.

“I still go through times that are very challenging. I do break down and maybe have a bad day, where I’m not in a good mental state,” Phelps said. “I understand that. It’s who I am. I guess that will always be something that’s a part of me.”

He hopes that his deal with Talkspace, which helps connect those in need with therapists through a variety on online conduits, will help to remove some of the stigma associated with mental health — especially for those who are reluctant to seek out help in person or may not have the financial means.

Phelps said mental health is especially important when suicide rates are on the rise and a rash of school shootings have rocked the United States.

“I feel like with all the issues we have in this world, this is something where I can truly make significant impact,” he said.

The 32-year-old Phelps has kept himself in good condition since Rio. He rides a bike nearly every day and still works out at the pool at least twice a week. When he stepped on the scales Monday, he weighed 192 pounds — 3 pounds less than he was at his last Olympics.

“Could I come back? Yes,” he said. “I think it would be even easier than it was in 2014 (when he officially ended his first attempt at retirement). I’m in better shape now than I was then.”

But, with those tantalizing words, Phelps quickly struck down any thought of returning to competitive swimming.

He simply doesn’t have any motivation to add to his record haul.

“Would I like to break a world record? Yeah, obviously,” Phelps said. “But I also know what I did to prepare for Rio. I thought I did a pretty damn good job of getting myself ready to go. I didn’t want any what-ifs 20 years down the road. Twenty years down the road, I won’t have that. I’ll be able to say I was happy with how I finished my career. I was happy to be able to have my family there, to have my first-born there to watch. I’ll have those memories forever.

“All good things must come to an end eventually. That was the best way to go out.”

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