KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Lorna Perpall's eyes welled with water and her heart swelled with pride. Her granddaughter Maddie Bowman just won the first women's halfpipe skiing gold medal in Olympic history. Amid the cheers and tears, grandma knew exactly how she wanted to celebrate: Strip off her clothes.
"I have to show you this," she said.
[ Video: Maddie Bowman brings another gold for USA ]
Perpall slowly tugged at the zipper on her parka. She is 78 years old, feels maybe half of it and acts one-tenth. She goes on long walks every day with her boyfriend – "He's very handsome," she cooed – and leading up to the Sochi Games, Bowman told her that she didn't want to go to the Olympics unless her grandma was there with her. Because the thing you have to understand about Perpall was written across the T-shirt she was so eager to show the world.
Gold medal winner Maddie Bowman's grandma, Lorna Perpall, is the most awesome grandma at the Sochi Games. pic.twitter.com/wrxFEoABVb— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 20, 2014
One day after Bowman called her that on a local public-radio station, Perpall went to a shop near her home in Placerville, Calif., and had a couple T-shirts made. She asked for the American flag, too, because she knew Bowman was headed to Sochi as the favorite in halfpipe skiing, and because she believed in her dream from last summer during which Bowman won gold.
To see it play out in real life – to watch her throw a pair of 900-degree spins and a switch 720, riding up the pipe backward and landing cleanly after two full spins – left Perpall momentarily speechless. "That's a first," she said, allowing her daughter and Bowman's mother, Sue, to explain Perpall's badassery.
"She's pretty tough," Sue said. "She's a bit of a klutz, but she always gets back up. I told her I was gonna put her on a leash here in Russia so she didn't fall off a train platform or something."
[ Slideshow: Team USA freestyle skier Maddie Bowman ]
No such falls occurred, at least not up to the point of Bowman landing two runs that beat every other score in the finals. As much as silver medalist Marie Martinod and bronze winner Ayana Onozuka tried, they couldn't match the technical superiority of the 20-year-old Bowman, whose thick, braided ponytail twirled in the air at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park and never came close to touching the ground as so many of her peers' heads did during a night of daring runs.
Bowman's coronation was 18 years in the making. Her father, Bill, was the ski racing coach at Sierra-at-Tahoe, her home mountain near South Lake Tahoe, Calif., where she honed her skills alongside fellow gold medalists Hannah Teter and Jamie Anderson. They were snowboarders, of course, and she harbored no hopes of joining them until the late Sarah Burke helped push for freeskiing's inclusion in the Olympic program.
The specter of Burke swathed the race Thursday night. The IOC, in its everlasting stupidity, refused to allow riders to wear armbands to honor Burke, who died after a crash two years ago in a Park City, Utah, halfpipe. She was the world's best female freeskier, an innovator, a risk taker, a force, beloved for who she was and envied for what she did.
The pressure for all the riders, then, was even greater. They wanted to make sure freeskiing's first showcase for the world did right by the fight Burke fought.
"Before I was dropping in, I felt like I was going to barf on my first run," Bowman said. "And by the second run, I had calmed down a little bit, and it worked out."
To say the least. She ended up atop the shoulders of David Wise, the men's halfpipe gold medalist, who paraded her around and celebrated the dominance of the American team at the Extreme Park. The final tally: six gold medals and 12 medals overall, both tops and both good enough to push the United States toward the top of the Sochi Games' medal table.
[ Video: Just how daunting is slopestyle skiing? ]
Perpall tried to sneak a peak at her granddaughter celebrating, though the madness of the moment obscured her view. She would have plenty of time. Unlike so many Olympians who isolate themselves leading up to their competition, Bowman came down the mountain and into town for a meal with her family. Grandma made her laugh. She made grandma laugh. The two share the sort of bond that an experience like this only intensifies. The people who travel halfway around the world to see you are the sort of people who matter.
Moments like this matter more than anything to Perpall. When her grandkids – she's got eight of them – turn 12 years old, she takes them on a trip to a national park. Bowman went to Yellowstone. They hiked and talked and developed even more the beautiful bond that grandparents relish and kids truly learn to appreciate as they get older.
"She's life," Bowman said. "That's what she is."
She is life. She spent years teaching people how to sing and loving them even if, like Bowman, they were terrible. She says things like "She's funnier than a rubber crutch," and "I'd rather clean ovens than watch qualifying," and doesn't laugh at her own jokes even when everyone else is. She is indeed a badass.
Though when she heads home, she's going to need to head back to that T-shirt shop and place an order for a new one that she'll be even prouder to show the world.
GOLD MEDAL GRANDMA.