By Nick Mulvenney
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Canadian teenager Dara Howell nailed her opening run as her rivals fell like ninepins on the Rosa Khutor snow to win the first Olympic gold medal in women's freestyle skiing slopestyle at the Sochi Games on Tuesday.
The 19-year-old former figure skater set such an imposing target with a score of 94.20 that she was able to celebrate her victory before her second run, which effectively functioned as a lap of honor.
"Oh, my God. I don't know what to say," Howell told reporters. "I can't believe it. It is so surreal and I am so happy to win a gold medal for Canada.
"I don't think it will hit me until later. It is truly amazing. There is a number of really good girls out there and I came out on top.
"This is the best moment in my entire life."
Devin Logan of the United States claimed silver with a score of 85.40 on her first run and Kim Lamarre took bronze for Canada with 85.00 on her second run after her first ended in a wipeout, a fate that befell many other skiers.
The warmer weather certainly made for soft conditions on the course but the skiers were also taking their tricks to the limits to try to reach the podium after a couple of the favorites failed to reach the final.
Canadian Yuki Tsubota appeared to suffer a serious injury on her second run when her ski failed to release as she fell awkwardly.
A hush fell over the crowd as she lay prone on the slope for more than a minute and there was sympathetic applause as the 20-year-old was carried away on a stretcher.
Canadian team officials later told Reuters she was going to be "okay" and was in the care of their medical staff.
Canadian world champion Kaya Turski had earlier fallen on both runs in qualifying and German World Cup leader Lisa Zimmermann also failed to make the last 12.
Howell topped the leaderboard in qualifying and so went out last in the first round of the final, producing the one truly top quality run of the competition.
Clean through the rails and successfully executing tricky maneuvers on the first two jumps, she capped her run with her trademark "back five" trick.
"Dara had the sickest run of the day, I'm so happy she was the one that beat me," Logan, 21, said.
"I was up on the podium with my friends and I couldn't have asked for a better day. She killed it and we deserved it."
It looked like the top three from the first run would stand as the podium until 25-year-old Lamarre put her best run together in the penultimate run of the final to push Australia's 2011 world champion Anna Segal out of third place.
"This is surreal. I have no words to describe this feeling, I am so happy," Lamarre said.
With Howell and Lamarre on the podium, Canada have now taken six of the nine medals awarded so far in freestyle skiing at the Sochi Games.
"I am so proud," said Howell. "It's huge for Canada. I'm happy to bring home another gold medal for Canada. The hard work has paid off."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)