The experience Maddie Bowman remembers most vividly from her return to the U.S. after winning the first gold medal ever awarded in women’s Olympic halfpipe skiing wasn’t going on TV or signing more autographs in a week than she had in her previous 21 years. It was the welcome parade thrown for her by her hometown of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Bowman stood on top of an old-fashioned fire truck alongside Olympic snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Hannah Teeter while thousands of fans lined the streets chanting “U-S-A!…U-S-A!” and holding signs that read “THANKS 4 BRINGING HOME GOLD,” and “STELLAR JOB LADIES!!!”
A little less than two months later, though, Bowman wasn’t standing. Instead, she was lying down while a Continuous Passive Motion machine slowly bent her left knee back and forth.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Bowman says. “It was so boring.”
But she had to endure the tedious rehabilitation because after the parade, after she appeared on Good Morning America and after she gave speeches at South Tahoe Middle School and Meyers Elementary there was one more stop. It wasn’t a celebration.
It was an appointment with Dr. Andrew Cooper, an orthopedic surgeon in Salt Lake City and the medical director for the U.S Freeskiing team. Though Cooper congratulated Bowman he also offered some unwelcome news. An MRI revealed that she had partially torn the meniscus in her left knee and knocked off a layer of cartilage between her femur and tibia plateau.
Bowman wasn’t shocked. After a crash during a practice run at Cooper Mountain in December 2013, her knee had begun to swell. And wouldn’t stop. She didn’t care. She iced her knee in between runs and said she “didn’t want to think about it” because she wasn’t willing to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Bowman secured her spot on the Olympic squad after the third of five qualifying events. She won her second consecutive X Games gold in January and headed off for Sochi.
Then February 20th, Bowman stared down the halfpipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. She tried to calm herself by joking with her coaches. She took a deep breath. She took off.
“At that point I wasn’t as nervous about my knee, but more just about being at the Olympics,” Bowman recalls. “My first run I was super nervous. You feel like you’re going to be sick.”
Yet neither her knee nor the Olympic spotlight seemed to have an impact. Bowman looked as comfortable as if she were riding the halfpipe back at Sierra-at-Tahoe, which she’d done since switching from alpine to freeskiing at age 13. She completed two flawless runs, executing 900s in both directions and posted the two highest scores of the final.
“It was a whirlwind,” Bowman says.
Once she reached the bottom she could hear her parents, Bill and Sue Bowman, celebrating in the front row of the crowd. Both skiers, Bowman’s parents gave Maddie her first pair of skis on her second birthday then helped her up every time she fell during her first lesson.
Bill and Sue were by her side again 20 years later. Except this time Bowman didn’t need any help. This time there were no falls. This time their daughter’s ride won her the gold.
Also among the cheering contingent were Bowman’s brother, Alec, and her grandmother, Lorna Perpall. Once U.S. teammate Brita Sigourney and Marie Martinod of France fell short of Bowman’s scores, Perpall clasped her face and looked as shocked as her granddaughter. The 78-year old from Placerville, Calif., then removed her USA jacket to show off her blue shirt with “BADASS GRANDMA” printed in bold white letters.
“Her’s was the most technical run out of any girl skiing,” Sigourney said of Bowman’s performance. “It's more technical than any run any girl has done all year, plus it's got amplitude and style, she's just got it all.”
Back in the States Bowman wasn’t concerned with pulling back-to-back 900s or a mute grab. She underwent surgery in May and was instructed to stay off her left leg for six weeks.
“My muscle pretty much disappeared,” she says. “When I wore my jeans it was so awkward because the right leg was super tight and the left leg was all baggy.”
Fashion concerns were the least of Bowman’s problems. She had to start a grueling six-month rehab process at the US Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City. But she approached her recovery just as if she were preparing for another run in the half-pipe: humble, relaxed and focused.
“She has incredible focus,” Perpall told the Denver Post after her granddaughter’s win in Sochi. “I have seen her narrow her focus on things she was working on, whether it was calculus homework or perfecting a trick. She just narrows her focus and she manages to calmly put everything out of the way and take care of business.”
Bowman worked on single-leg exercises including squats and lunges. She started paying more attention to her nutrition and opted for KIND bars when she was craving a Snickers. She did Pilates to improve her flexibility and core strength. She even added an anatomy class to her fall course load at Westminster College so that she could add more to conversations with her physical therapists than, “This area hurts.”
Her first exam back in the halfpipe after her surgery was the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., this past December. Bowman aced it. She won her second consecutive Dew Tour event and,as in Russia, scored the two highest runs in the final.
Bowman says that hardest part of recovery was sticking with the doctor’s orders and staying on schedule, but that the patience has paid off and she feels healthy for the first time in more than a year.
“I feel way better and more energetic,” she says. “Which is great news.”
Except for her competitors.