Nothing To Prove: Why is Maddie Bowman, one of the most decorated skiers in history, still defending herself?
In January 2015, amid X Games Aspen, former FREESKIER senior editor Nate Abbott wrote a controversial commentary on the women’s halfpipe final, in which Maddie Bowman won her third consecutive X Games gold medal at the age of 21 and landed what she felt was the run of her life.
“Maddie, with three runs to go, hadn’t looked particularly nervous before the run. And afterwards, she didn’t have any sort of amazing emotional reaction… Sure, Maddie executed her runs well, there were a few new tricks and a couple other ladies threw good runs… But honestly, if you dropped this contest into 2011, no one would be blown away… The sport of women’s halfpipe just hasn’t progressed at a rapid clip and I would not be shocked if the organizers of X Games dropped women’s halfpipe altogether.
As an anonymous source within the production of X told me of his view of Maddie, ‘She knows she can do the same run, not even try to grab and still beat everyone because it is so much harder.’”
Just over a year later, Downdays.eu published a recap of X Games Oslo that included negative commentary about the women’s halfpipe final, in which Bowman won silver, her seventh X Games medal.
“While the men go high and grab, even in practice, most of the girls didn’t even try, like the best ambassador of this no-style [sic] Maddie Bowman. In second place this time, the multiple X Games winner represents the spin-to-win mentality in women’s pipe. Okay, she does three different 900s, but never grabs them.”
The author of that piece, David Malacrida, reached out to Bowman seeking an interview, prefacing a list of loaded questions with: “I will not hide what I think of your skiing but it’s also why I want to give you a chance to talk.”
In January of 2016, Bowman earned her fourth straight gold medal at X Games Aspen—becoming just the second skier to win four consecutive X Games gold medals—with the first switch 900 thrown by a woman in halfpipe competition. She also won the Park City stop of the U.S. Grand Prix and topped the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP) halfpipe rankings at the end of the season; it was the third AFP title of her career. Consider Bowman earned an Olympic gold medal in Sochi (after bagging podium finishes at four of the five Olympic qualification events in 2013-14) and you have one of the most decorated female freeskiers in history. Through it all, she’s rehabbed from two knee surgeries and finished her sophomore year at Westminster College.
So, why is Bowman still forced to defend herself and her sport?
“It’s frustrating. There aren’t a lot of stories about women’s freeskiing, and the two that gained the most traction recently were negative,” says Bowman. “You get down on yourself. Those articles made me question why I’m doing this. Why am I competing if I’m doing really well in the eyes of judges, but I’m just getting sh#t for it?”
Because she’s good. So good that few can beat her. And when an athlete dominates—take snowboarding legend Shaun White or skiing icons Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall, for example—they often become a target.
“Maddie gets ragged on a lot by people who pick on women’s skiing,” says Brita Sigourney, one of Bowman’s best friends and a U.S. Freeskiing teammate. “They use her name to address us as a group. I would hate it if people were singling me out for not grabbing, even if I was winning. I wish they could acknowledge the fact that we’re [participating in] a scary sport, we get hurt all the time and it’s really cool to land a technical run we’ve never done before.”
In truth, progressing in the halfpipe isn’t all that fun. It requires an incredible amount of technical edge control and skiing ability. Learning new tricks can hurt. Mistakes aren’t forgiving. Resorts can barely afford to maintain a halfpipe, let alone build a mini-pipe or purchase an airbag for a select few to utilize for training purposes. Even some of the top 10 female pipe skiers struggle to find sponsors. Add the lofty measuring stick even the best in the sport are held against and it’s easy to see why halfpipe skiing might be a daunting sport for young girls to get into.
If the aforementioned writers wanted to highlight the positive aspects of women’s halfpipe skiing, they might have focused on Ayana Onozuka’s ability to spin both ways and grab, Devin Logan progressing women’s style, Sigourney’s amplitude or how much effort Bowman puts into working on her grabs. She’s been doing more yoga and stretching regularly in an attempt to bring her knees to her body and improve the element of skiing she struggles with the most. In her constant quest to progress, Bowman often moves on to the next trick before nailing the grab.
“She’s constantly working on [grabbing] and you can see how frustrated she gets,” says Sigourney. “It’s an easy way to hate on someone’s skiing—to single that one thing out. It lets them ignore the fact she’s doing back-to-back 900s.”
Malacrida, who is no longer an active member of skiing’s media, says it’s nothing personal. He blames a spin-to-win culture; he believes many female freeskiers, contest judges and sponsors inadvertently push women’s freeskiing in what he sees as the wrong direction. Malacrida advises Bowman and her peers to take notice of how their male counterparts—he cites Candide Thovex, in particular—learned to grab their 540s before learning doubles. “First you grab, second you go big, third you spin,” Malacrida says. “It would be cool if the girls and Maddie could think about it.”
What many fail to realize is the technical difficulty of the runs Bowman executes. And when a sport sees a rapid advancement in technical tricks—whether it’s airs in surfing or double corks in snowboarding—style often takes a backseat, at least for a moment. The fact is, Bowman lands tricks that no other girl can. X Games isn’t a photoshoot; it’s a competition. As Nate Abbott admits, “there’s no better style than gold.”
“She has not gotten the credit she deserves at all,” says U.S. Freeskiing halfpipe coach Ben Verge, who has coached Bowman since she was 15 years old. “She has one of the best work ethics of any skier I know. She’s go-go-go and she needs to be told to slow down and take days off—she wants to ski everyday. It’s an absolutely pure love of skiing.”
That love for skiing prompted Bowman to host her first invitational photoshoot, in April, 2016, which focused on fun and progression in a low-pressure environment. “Spring Recess” drew Sigourney, Logan, Maggie Voisin, Annalisa Drew, Darian Stevens, Kimmy Sharp and others to Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, Bowman’s home mountain. Bowman hoped her peers would push their skiing in front of the cameras outside of a competition setting.
“It was totally different than your average park jump or halfpipe,” says Voisin—a rising star and X Games silver medalist in slopestyle. “Maddie put together a creative, flowing course all the way down a three-minute run. With rock gaps, huge S turns, rollers, a bowl, a massive hip jump, rails and ending with a halfpipe, the whole run really put you out of your comfort zone.”
Off the hill, the girls spent five days together in a river-front house Bowman rented, not far from where she grew up; they used the time to relax at the end of a long ski season, enjoying some of Bowman’s favorite Tahoe activities in the afternoon and evening—hiking and swimming and such.
Bowman’s critics see her competition runs, but not the whole picture. They might not realize that Bowman is a skier like the rest of us, doing this for fun. And she just happens to be incredibly talented in the halfpipe.