The Olympics were never part of Sarah Hoefflin's plan.
The goal when she entered university in Cardiff, England, a decade ago was to become a doctor. So she buried her head in books and earned a degree in neuroscience. Skiing back then was mostly just a way to blow off some steam every once in a while.
Medical school was supposed to be the next step after graduation.
One problem: she didn't get in.
"It just didn't work out for me," Hoefllin said.
No matter. The skiing thing kind of did. The 27-year-old from Switzerland capped her improbable rise with a victory in women's slopestyle on Saturday, edging teammate Mathilde Gremaud for the top spot by drilling her final run down the demanding course at Phoenix Snow Park. Isabel Atkin of Britain took bronze with a score of 84.60 in her final run to give her country its first ever medal in a skiing event at the Olympics.
Hoefflin was already in position to reach the podium the last time she stepped into the gate. Rather than settle for something other than gold, Hoefflin went for it, capping her winning run with a double-cork 720-degree spin. She raised her arms after sticking the landing and her score of 91.20 was more than three points clear of the 88.00 Gremaud put up in her first run of the finals.
Heady territory for a skier who didn't get serious until her early 20s. Hoefflin remembers crashing hard the first time she ever tried to navigate a slopestyle course "because I didn't know what I was doing." She only entered her first competition at the urging of classmates because the winner received a new set of skis and she, well, she'd never had new skis before.
That's hardly a problem anymore.
Hoefflin has practically sprinted toward the upper echelons of her sport, winning gold in the Big Air competition at X Games last month. Still, she didn't exactly head to the starting gate with a ton of confidence. Training didn't go well.
"I just wasn't really landing anything," she said. "It happens sometimes when you're not really feeling yourself."
Hoefflin was born in Geneva before her family moved to Kingsbury, England, about two hours north of London. She was starting to get the feel for freestyle when someone approached her and asked if she wanted to compete for her birth country. It changed everything.
"I went to some training camps with some Swiss team members and it just started from there," she said. "They looked after me so well and they managed to turn me into the athlete I am today."
Gremaud earned bronze despite a frightening wipeout during training in which her head slammed into the packed snow, sending her to the hospital for a CT scan. She had no recollection of it when she watched it on video but managed to block it out during the competition.
"I was praying everything was all right," Gremaud said. "I did some concussion test with a doctor. They said everything was all right so I could ski. I just enjoyed the day."
Not everyone did.
Defending Olympic champion Dara Howell of Canada crashed twice during qualifying and didn't advance. American Devin Logan, a silver medalist in Sochi, reached the finals but wasn't a factor after either crashing or having execution problems in each of her last three runs.
Logan, who will compete in the halfpipe competition next week, never really got going on her 24th birthday. She was a middling sixth during qualifying and her best trip during the finals came on her second run, when she appeared to be doing well only to scrape the ground after landing her penultimate jump.
Unlike the women's snowboarding slopestyle competition, where wind wreaked havoc with the field, the issues this time around seemed to simply be the treacherous course. Only nine of the 36 runs in the finals produced scores over 70, considered the benchmark of a solid trip. Hoefflin wondered if more practice time would have helped, pointing out there were five days of training before the X Games as opposed to just three days in South Korea.
"It was a bit of a struggle for me," Hoefflin said.
Until it wasn't. Until the woman who wanted to be a doctor found Olympic glory instead.
"I wasn't really expecting too much," Hoefflin said. "But I think the best thing about today is I managed to step on the podium with my teammate. That was a dream."
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org