PYEONGCHANG — Cassie Sharpe is still kind of new to this. When the 25-year-old who grew up in a ski family on Vancouver Island came to talk to reporters after her message-sending Monday performance in the ski halfpipe qualifiers, she was briefly taken aback by the number of people waiting to speak to her.
“Wow,” she said, then leaned into the assembled recording devices held by outstretched arms. “Hellooooo,” she said.
A day later, the skier who was new to the big stage of the Olympics had thoroughly dominated it. Sharpe romped to the halfpipe gold medal in a performance that was rather Phelps-ian. With her first of three finals attempts, Sharpe put down a trick-filled run that scored 94.40, more than two full points ahead of her nearest rival, France’s Marie Martinod, who was the silver medallist in the event at Sochi 2014.
With a clean run down, and with Martinod slightly increasing her score to 94.20 with her second attempt, Sharpe was free to be extra aggressive with her second run. Her trip down the 22-foot-high pipe, which included back-to-back tricks with two-and-a-half rotations and one with three full rotations, scored a huge 95.80. For context, the winning score in Sochi was 89.00. When Sharpe finished the run, she lifted both hands to her helmet in a did-that-just-happen pose; she said later that she thought she had just delivered a gold-medal performance.
Which, it turns out, she did. American Brita Sigourney used her third run for a score of 91.60 to climb back into bronze-medal position and when Martinod fell while trying to land a trick in her final run, the gold medal for Sharpe was assured. She hugged her coach, Tanner Paynter, at the top of the pipe, and the two argued about who would make the other cry on international television.
On Monday, Sharpe had said her top scores in qualifying, which allowed her to ski last, was the ideal scenario. “I want to drop last in the final,” she said. Not only would she know what she needed to do, there would be the potential for a final-run victory lap: “If I can get another one of those,” she said, “that’s the best feeling in the world.” As it turned out, the victory lap was a little harder than imagined.
“When you got your hard-as-nails coach in tears at the top, it’s kind of hard to zone into what you’re doing,” she said of that run. “I fell, but I didn’t just give up the run.” She still snuck in some tricks, including a 1080-degree rotation at the end, to give the crowd and its large Canadian contingent, including about 15 of her friends and family, a little something extra to cheer.
Full-throated celebrations, though, were unexpectedly intermittent over the two days of ski halfpipe competition, thanks in part to the top-heavy nature of the field. At one end was Sharpe, who pushed the sport higher with her dazzling display at Phoenix Snow Park, paying homage to Sarah Burke, the Canadian who helped pioneer the sport and who died after a training accident six years ago. “I wouldn’t be doing the tricks that I do without her being in this sport,” Sharpe said afterward. At the other end were the many competitors, particularly in qualifying, who couldn’t crack scores of 70.
One of them, Liz Swaney, a 33-year-old Californian competing for Hungary, skied up and down the walls of the pipe like it was her first time in one, and then declared herself disappointed that she didn’t make the finals. The subject of whether unworthy Olympians had polluted the competition remained a hot topic on Tuesday as the finals unfolded, though the skiers themselves would largely not be baited into the controversy. Sharpe said on Monday that anyone who met the standards, which included World Cup competitions, had earned the right to be in Pyeongchang. She also said the level of ability on display hadn’t been compromised.
“The girls are out here killing it,” Sharpe said. “The pipe is so perfect that the girls are trying their hardest tricks and landing them, which is so sick, and I love to see it.”
There were times, though, even in the final, where it seemed as though there was Sharpe, and there was everyone else. Maddie Bowman of the United States, the gold medallist at Sochi, the only other time ski halfpipe was in the Olympic program, had three very good runs going in the finals but fell on her last trick in each of them. Had any of them been clean, she might have been able to exert some pressure on the young Canadian.
Sigourney said the tricks on display only showed how the sport has advanced in just its second turn through the Olympic calendar.
“We’ve come a long way and if people don’t respect us after this, they can go … they can go somewhere else,” she said.
On the evidence of this week, though, if the women are going to push ski halfpipe farther, it will be Cassie Sharpe who leads them. She wanted the pressure of the last spot, she got it, and she knew what to do with it.
“Honestly, it hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m an Olympic champion yet. It’s a pretty crazy feeling, and I gotta go hug my family and go really experience the love and be a part of that.”
Then she went and did that, too.