Bellingham's VanLaanen still smiling after finishing 11th in Olympic halfpipe

Team USA's Maddie Bowman wins gold

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 20, 2014 

You could clean up the blood and bandage the scrape on her nose, but you simply could not hide the smile on Angeli VanLaanen's face on Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Russia.

The first Bellingham-born Winter Olympian may have finished out of the medals and 11th with a score of 29.60 in the debut of women's freeskiing halfpipe, but she wasn't about to let that ruin her experience in Russia.

"I definitely have a smile on my face, because it's such an honor to be a part of history in the making," VanLaanen said after competition had concluded.

American teammate Maddie Bowman, from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., claimed the first gold medal in the event, posting a best score of 89.00 on her second run to complete a U.S. sweep of halfpipe skiing gold in the first year the event was contested at the Olympics. Reno's David Wise won the men's gold on Tuesday, Feb. 18.

On Thursday, France's Marie Martinod took the silver with a score of 85.40, while Japan's Ayana Onozuka won the bronze with her 83.20.

"It's really amazing to see friends on the podium, but no matter who ended up there, they would have been my friends" said VanLaanen, a 2004 graduate of Bellingham High School. "That's a really phenomenal thing that we have in this community. It was a very exciting night for all of us."

VanLaanen's sunny outlook is definitely a testament to a cheerful personality that those in Bellingham who knew her have seen for years, especially considering the final didn't go the way VanLaanen - who entered fifth in the latest International Ski Federation women's halfpipe rankings - would have hoped.

In fact, her first run was quite a bit more painful than anyone would have liked.

After completing a 540 (21/2 spin) on her second hit in the halfpipe, VanLaanen attempted to land a second with her third trick. But she ended up struggling with the landing, and her face absorbed most of the fall.

After a moment lying stunned at the bottom of the halfpipe, VanLaanen got to her skis and skied to the bottom, checking her nose for blood as she awaited a score of 13.80.

"Everything is in order," VanLaanen said. "I've got a mouth guard I wear when I ski and a helmet that had a brim on it, thank goodness. My face is just a little scraped up."

When she emerged at the top of the drop-in ramp for her second run, her protective gear included a bandage on the bridge of her nose.

But that was about the only effect she showed from her hard first-run fall.

VanLaanen showed no fear, going after and landing the back-to-back 540s on her second and third hits, but when she attempted to land her fourth, she appeared to catch a ski edge and went down, scrubbing her run of speed and ending her medal hopes.

Again VanLaanen got back to her skis, and this time she was able to put in a few more crowd-pleasers at the bottom of the halfpipe before waving to those in the stands between a few tears of emotion.

Those tears were quickly replaced by VanLaanen's trademark smile, though, as she waited for her score.

"I think there is a lot of emotion tonight, with this being the first event for halfpipe in the Olympics and just remembering everyone who had a part of making this moment happen and bring our sport to this place," VanLaanen said. "It's been an emotional night, even before the scrape on my face. A lot of emotion, and sometimes you just got to let it out."

One of the people VanLaanen certainly was speaking about was Canadian freeskiing legend Sarah Burke, who was a pioneer in the sport and instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to include it in this year's Olympics before her untimely death from injuries suffered in a 2012 training accident in Utah.

Burke, who was a four-time Winter X Games gold medallist and finished first in the halfpipe at the 2005 World Championships, was instrumental in getting VanLaanen started in freeskiing as a both mentor and close friend after they met at a camp at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia.

"She was such an amazing role model," VanLaanen said. "She just led by example and was inclusive and excited for everyone. Win or lose, she had a smile on her face."

VanLaanen, who first took to the slopes at Mt. Baker Ski Area, certainly showed that same resolve in the final on Thursday.

She had plenty to smile about during the preliminaries, though.

Bellingham's first female Olympian posted the 10th-best first-run score with her 68.20, before stomping out an impressive 83.20 on her second to qualify fifth.

"I definitely needed that second run to place well going to final," VanLaanen said after the prelims. "So going into it, thinking about being clean and holding onto all my tricks. I'm glad it worked out. ... It was an amazing feel to have that run."

Martinod was the top qualifier with a score of 88.40, with the United States' Brita Sigourney (87.80) and Bowman (85.60) right behind. Annalisa Drew qualified 11th, placing all four Americans in the final, which took the top 12 qualifiers.

Like VanLaanen, most of the skiers in the final had Burke on their minds Thursday with Burke's parents, Gordon Burke and Jan Phelan, in attendance.

"It was Sarah's dream to be here," Phelan said. "So, it's here. The halfpipe is opening for the women, and I miss her like crazy."

The athletes Burke championed tried to rise to the occasion, Bowman in particular.

"Sarah has inspired us on snow or off snow," Bowman said. "I think she would have been very proud of how all the girls rode tonight. ... I hope I and all the other girls made her proud. We wouldn't have been here without her."

Bowman showed some of Burke's tenaciousness in the finals.

The 20-year-old found a rhythm in the medal round after overcoming some jitters that she joked made her want to "barf." Stringing along a dizzying series of spins and grabs, Bowman performed the two highest-scoring runs of the night.

Bowman's first finals run, an 85.80, putting pressure on Martinod. Bowman's second trip through the halfpipe was even better. She clasped the side of her helmet in disbelief then sat and waited to see if Martinod or Sigourney could top her.

Sigourney, who washed out in her first final run, appeared ready to threaten Bowman before her backside skimmed the snow with only one jump off the 22-foot halfpipe left to complete her run.

That left Martinod, who retired in 2007 but returned to the sport in 2012 at the urging of Burke. The 29-year-old Frenchwoman was one of the older performers in the 23-skier field, and her introduction included a series of outtakes with her 4-year-old daughter Melirose.

"She's my everything," Martinod said. "I keep training and charging and doing what I love because I want her to see how great it is to achieve some goals and be able to reach the point I wanted to be."

Martinod's sliver allowed her a chance to say "goodbye" to Burke, as she painted snowflakes on her fingernails in tribute then stood on the podium alongside her daughter in triumph.

Sigourney, who placed sixth, one spot ahead of Drew, blinked back tears of disappointment, though they were soon cast aside during an event that served as a celebration of Burke's legacy.

"A lot of girls were really pushing themselves," said Rosalind Groenewoud of Canada, who finished seventh. "I wish (Sarah) could have won tonight if it wasn't me."

Bowman's gold was the sixth for the U.S. at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

"This is first time a lot of people in this world saw what we do and why we love it," she said.

The Associated Press and McClatchy's Tom Peterson contributed to this story.

WOMEN'S HALFPIPE FINAL RESULTS

PlaceSkierCountryScore
1.Maddie BowmanUnited States89.00
2.Marie MartinodFrance85.40
3.Ayana OnozukaJapan83.20
4.Virginie FaivreSwitzerland78.00
5.Janina KuzmaNew Zealand77.00
6.Brita SigourneyUnited States76.00
7.Rosalind Groenewoud Canada74.20
8.Mirjam JaegerSwitzerland71.20
9.Annalisa DrewUnited States66.40
10.Amy SheehanAustralia40.60
11.Angeli VanLaanenUnited States29.60
12.Anais CaradeuxFranceDNS

WATCH VIDEO: MADDIE BOWMAN WINS GOLD

Reach David Rasbach at 715-2286 or david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com .

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