KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- It was still dark Tuesday morning when the women of freeskiing took their first practice runs on the slopestyle course. Throughout the day, as competition moved through qualifiers and finals and the course began to mirror spring skiing conditions, large holes riddled the jump section and the course became sticky and slow. But none of that prevented Canadian skier Dara Howell from landing the best run of the day, the best run of her life and, if the reaction from her teammates in Sochi and her peers back home was any indication, one of the best runs in women's slopestyle history.
And that it was. Howell's first-run score of 94.20 held up for the remainder of the competition, and after taking a second-run victory lap through the course, she became the first freeski gold medalist in Winter Olympics history.
"I can't believe people were saying that about my run," Howell said after the event. "It was the best run I've done in my entire life. I just want to keep pushing it and pushing the sport. The course worked for me today. I mean, everyone loves spring skiing."
After struggling during the morning practice -- "I was so wet I looked like I'd been scuba diving," she said of the session -- Howell dropped in for her first run knowing there was no room for mistakes, or for safety runs. The last rider to drop, she also knew the score she needed to take the lead. After a clean, technical rail section, she landed a switch cork 720 with a high safety grab, a switch misty 900 mute grab and a huge flatspin 540 bow and arrow.
"That was her big target for X Games, the 900," said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freeski Association. "She was having trouble in practice today and for her to come through with that run, it was sensational. That speaks to Dara's tenacity."
U.S. skier Devin Logan, whom coach Mike Jankowski said was skiing "with the eye of the tiger" Tuesday, secured the silver medal with her first-run score of 85.40. "I'm so happy with myself and my skiing," she said. "I landed the run I wanted to land and I was having fun spring skiing with my friends. Dara had the sickest run of the day and she deserves it."
Howell's teammate, Kim Lamarre, who is coming off back-to-back seasons shortened by ACL surgeries, took the bronze. "I still feel like I'm sleeping, like I'm in a dream," she said. "It's been a hard two years, but this just shows that you should never stop believing in yourself."
That was a sentiment echoed by several of the women on Tuesday, many of whom -- Logan included -- are coming off knee injuries. Canadian skier Kaya Turski, who won the X Games two weeks ago, only five months after having ACL reconstruction surgery, fell uncharacteristically on both of her runs. She said the stress of the past week, coupled with battling the flu since arriving in Europe, affected her mentally.
"I didn't foresee this outcome, but I've been struggling the past couple weeks," she said. "I've been sick and I let it get the best of me. I've been stressed out and I got in my own way today. But I put my heart and soul into this journey and I wouldn't have done it any differently."
Although Turski was the favorite coming into the event, in the end, it was another Canadian who will stand on the top wrung of the medal stand Tuesday night. Howell said that hearing "O Canada" played as she receives her gold medal will be extra special for her and the sport of freeskiing.
"I said earlier in the week that I hope a Canadian wins a gold medal, because it would be for Sarah," she said of her former teammate, freeski pioneer Sarah Burke, who died in a halfpipe training accident two years ago and is largely responsible for freeski's inclusion in the Olympics. "She wanted to see the sport progress, to see the girls throw the same tricks the guys do, and she always had a smile on her face. I think I did that today. This gold medal is for Sarah."