Maddie Bowman has about as compelling a case for the title of world’s best female freeskier as you’ll find. (1) No competitor has bested her at X Games in the past three years; she’ll come into Aspen next week looking for her fourth consecutive halfpipe gold medal. (2) She also won the inaugural gold at the Olympics in halfpipe. (3) She is one of the only action sports athletes (male, female, skier or boarder) who has had consistent X Games success over the past few years, all while picking up Olympic hardware. But Bowman shies away from the idea of being the best around because she remains as humble as her inspiration and idol: the late Sarah Burke.
SI.com caught up with Maddie and talked about how she views her place in the action sports world, which one of here medals she’s most fond of (spoiler: it’s not a gold medal), and how she still has fun under the pressure of the spotlight.
Ryan Wallerson: How did you first get into skiing?
Maddie Bowman: It’s just what I did growing up. I started skiing on my second birthday. From that moment on I just loved it. I fell in love with park and halfpipe around 13. I switched over from being a racer, actually. I was a total tomboy growing up. I just hung out with all the guys and they started transitioning into the park and I said, ‘Well, I guess I am too.’ And it really worked out. I love how free it is, all the different things you can do. There's nothing like it.
And when did you first fall in love with halfpipe?
MB: I love to ski park and everything, but there is something about halfpipe that I find myself pushing myself harder than I do in the park. I don't even know what drew me to it. Maybe it's the fact that in pipe you control exactly how big you go. It's fun to scare myself and push myself to limits I've never reached before. I don't even remember the first time I saw a halfpipe. My home mountain had one, so I was probably three years old, cruising. But I must have liked it.
RW: Three X Games gold medals, an Olympic gold in 2014 and two consecutive years leading the AFC halfpipe rankings. Are you the best in the world?
MB: It sounds weird to hear it all listed out like that for sure. I just love to go out and enjoy skiing with my friends. I guess I haven't noticed how much those results have stacked up actually. I'm really thankful to be where I'm at, thankful to have so many friends who push me that I can ski with and have fun with. It's brought great memories, and I remember those more than the accolades.
It's hard to claim and say I'm the best. I think that the girls that I ride with, we all have our talents and our strengths. I still have a lot of things that I need to work on. That's what's cool about our sport. Everyone brings something different. Someone can say Danny Davis is the best [snowboard] halfpipe rider and someone else can say Shaun White is, but they have completely different styles so it's hard to define who really is the best.
Of this current gold medal streak you're on—three at X Games and one at the Olympics—which one is your favorite?
MB: That's a hard one. I'd have to say the medal that actually means the most to me isn't any of them. It's a silver medal in 2011, my first big finish at X Games. I was so happy. I was obviously happy for all of the golds as well, but this was my first result. To be on the podium with some of my idols was just so impossibly cool. It's kind of a weird answer, but that's got to be the one. It's right up on my wall with the golds.
RW: Do you want to be recognized as the best in your discipline of halfpipe? Sort of like what Jamie Anderson is to snowboard Slopestyle or what Kelly Clark is to snowboard halfpipe?
MB: It's super flattering when people say that, and it's cool to get that recognition. It makes me smile and blush. But I don't know if that's a dream. I just want to go out and ski the best I can every day. If I enjoy what I'm doing and I know that I really love it, what more do I need? I think my end game goal is to be a name in different aspects of skiing, not just halfpipe.
RW: What are some of those other goals you aspire to?
MB: I'd love to get into some big mountain stuff. I'm finally starting to get out into the backcountry and try some new things. It's definitely hard and I'm still learning a lot about it. It's kind of a goal for this year to continue that. That's an example. Don't want to give away too much...
What’s the secret to your success?
MB: When I’m beginning to fall apart and I’m not getting the results that I’m looking for, I need to go out there and have a day that I go out and cruise with my friends. Laugh and just chill and remind myself that I truly love skiing. I think for anyone, if they’re having a good time, they are going to ski their best.
Within the event, I think that over the last few years I’ve been rewarded because my style is a little more technical and I have left and right rotations along with a switch 720. Having those moves in my arsenal has been really key in some of my results.
RW: How’s your health coming into X Games?
MB: I’m coming back from ACL surgery and a micro fracture in my knee. I think X Games or Mammoth is going to be my first event back. I haven’t decided if I’m going to participate in Mammoth, but it would be nice to get some runs in before X Games. My physical therapist says I’m pretty much there. I’m probably like 97% ready to go or something like that. It’s been a long road. I haven’t skied in 10 months just dealing with this. It hasn’t been easy at all, but coming back, skiing feels better than walking so that’s great.
RW: What have you focused on during your rehab?
MB: It’s been all about getting strong. I’m also trying to work on how fast and quick I can jump and my reaction time. You know, the things that make humans all-around good athletes. I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym, and it’s been tough. But the hardest part of this whole process is absolutely the mental side of it. When you call yourself a skier and you’ve only skied three and a half months for the last year and a half or so, it wears on you.
RW: You mentioned your best memory of X Games being when your idol Sarah Burke walked up and introduced herself to you. You dedicated the gold medal you won the year of her death to her memory. Is she still your main inspiration?
MB: She’s not just an inspiration to keep skiing and to push ourselves to new levels, she was also an inspiration to be a great person. I was just talking with [fellow freeskier] Annalisa Drew today about how she was so humble and great. She was that girl who could go win X Games and then introduce herself to a newbie like me on her way out. I will always remember her, and I continue to aspire to be just like her. I hope that we are making her proud.