Looking back: The incredible Sarah Burke

Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died on Jan. 19, 2012 after sustaining serious injuries in a skiing accident. (Nate Abbott/Sportsnet magazine)

This article first appeared in Sportsnet magazine in February of 2012. On Wednesday, Sarah Burke will be inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.

Sarah Burke stood on the side of a mountain and looked down at the world beneath her. Brown peaks, spotted with snow, stretched up in the distance, beyond a valley of ski shops and cottages. Written in white, the letters “PC” blazed proudly at the top of a slope facing her. They marked Park City, Utah—a famous destination, set within the Rocky Mountains, for world-class freestyle skiers. Sarah was at the mouth of a snowy canyon, the mountain’s famous Eagle Superpipe and its 6.7m walls. She bent her knees, jammed her poles in deep and pushed off.

This is where, this is how, Sarah lived her life. From the clouds, she was a faint fleck on the mountainside, a mere human facing nature’s indomitable largeness. On the hills, she was a giant, conquering Earth’s jagged heights. She was to freeskiing what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey, or Michael Jordan was to basketball—the iconic face of a sport. She built her world by conquering limits, both on the hill and off it. But on Jan. 10, at half past noon, Sarah’s world stopped spinning.

It was her second day in Park City with the Monster Energy freeskiing team, a collection of some of the world’s best halfpipe skiers and snowboarders. Sarah spent the first day practising her limit-pushing routine, landing the most difficult tricks on a giant, inflated crash mat at the bottom of the pipe. It was supposed to be just another day of training. The only thing unusual was the air, a spring-like seven degrees Celsius. Sarah was skiing in a sweater.

The snow was slick in parts and soft in others. The sun beat down on the left side of the pipe, loosening the snow a touch. The conditions weren’t perfect, but not considered dangerous. Sarah weaved up and down the two-storey walls, her tracks like stitches on the mountain. At the edge of each wall, velocity propelled her up another storey, closer to the clouds. She danced with gravity, spinning gracefully back to earth.

She neared the left wall about 15m from the bottom of the pipe, and prepared to pull off an alley-oop flatspin 540—a twisting jump, with a one-and-a-half rotation against her forward momentum, back up toward the top of the pipe. It’s a relatively common trick for advanced male competitors, but not generally in the arsenal of female halfpipe skiers. Sarah was one of only a few women able to regularly work these tricks into her routine, a benefit of exceptional upper-body control and strength.

She pulled off a 540 at the Euro X Games last March, and had been practising it all day. She had landed it on her previous trip down the pipe. “She was definitely trying to push it, but it was nothing extreme,” a witness would later explain, asking to remain anonymous under the crush of frantic media coverage.

Sarah popped up into the sky with a touch too much force. She pulled off the twist, but drifted away from the lip of the pipe and over-rotated, landing sideways, low on the steep wall, skis facing down the hill. She cut into the snow, like skates stopping on ice. After a brief skid, she fell sideways toward the middle of the pipe, her body snapping down like a mousetrap, landing on her right side.

To her teammates and other spectators, it looked like a routine fall, with the brunt of the impact on her shoulder. Everyone had seen worse on the halfpipe, where spills often end in a thumping heap. A moment passed. Sarah didn’t move. Friends called her name. Nothing. They rushed to her side. Nothing. A witness said she took a couple of short breaths and then, “That was it.”

About 10 minutes passed before mountain patrol arrived, according to witnesses. Sarah was secured on a sled and pulled to emergency headquarters some 250m away. A dozen snowboarders and skiers ran behind the snowmobile. Sarah’s helmet was off, her head was slumped to the side.

A helicopter arrived from the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, 50km southeast of Park City. There were whispers in the crowd that mountain patrol had managed to resuscitate Sarah. According to witnesses, almost 15 minutes passed between the moment she was pulled from the hill to the time she was loaded into the helicopter. The chopper blades whirled back into motion, and Sarah flew high above the mountains, in a race to Salt Lake City. The superpipe lay silent for the rest of the day. A quiet buzz spread through Park City—a chain of rumours, pieces of a story everyone hoped was untrue. It would take nine days to find an ending.

Sarah’s skiing dreams began in the shadow of Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment, sculpted long ago by the force of retreating ice caps. The modest hills near Sarah’s hometown of Midland, Ont., offered her the first opportunity to push against the rules that restricted her young, adventurous spirit. She was on skis by the age of five and eventually became a regular at the nearby Horseshoe Valley ski resort. In the early ’90s, only snowboarders were allowed to use the resort’s halfpipe. Sarah would wait until the end of the day before ripping through it on her skis, racing with the thrill that came with knowing that her lift ticket was about to be pulled. She joined the resort’s ski team, and spent her evenings skiing moguls. Eventually, she was allowed to train on the halfpipe. Sarah would fall hard and often. “I’ve never, ever seen anybody take so many crashes and just get up and do it again,” says her former coach, Wesley Gregg. While other skiers lounged on lifts, Sarah would hike up the hill to the aerials site, taking several jumps before the others arrived.

That drive helped earn Sarah a spot on the Ontario ski team. Her father became one of the team’s drivers, lugging the teens to competitions from Thunder Bay to Ottawa. Sarah’s then-teammate Brendan Buchar was convinced she had rubber legs. “I’ve never seen anybody bail as hard as she did,” he says. When Sarah was 15, she tried a 1080 spin—three full revolutions of the body—during practice. She landed the triple spin on her first try. “As soon as she landed, you could see her at the bottom just running around with the biggest, giant smile,” Buchar says. “That was just Sarah.”

Sarah left Midland Secondary midway through her final year, moving to Squamish, B.C., to pursue a career as a pro skier. At the time, women’s halfpipe skiing was barely on the radar, and there were few female skiers competing. Sarah would enter the men’s event at competitions, knowing her score wouldn’t count, despite the fact that she regularly ranked higher than her male counterparts. But she was never content to be a sideshow. When she was still a teenager, Sarah campaigned to have the women’s halfpipe event included in the Winter X Games. Her persistent barrage of letters and phone calls eventually paid off. Burke won her first gold when the event was introduced in 2003.

From then on, Burke was a star. Whenever she arrived in towns like Park City, everyone recognized the face of women’s halfpipe skiing. She scored professional sponsors, including Salomon and Roxy, who capitalized on her skill, charisma and good looks. She appeared on giant posters in ski shops across North America and Europe. She starred in skiing movies, ripping down mountains, riding rails in terrain parks and flipping on halfpipes. An entire generation of talented young skiers wanted nothing more than to be like her. Meg Olenick, a renowned freeskier and member of the U.S. national team, would watch Sarah for hours on the TV in her parents’ basement in Colorado with her two older brothers. “She was the only girl out there doing it,” says Olenick, now 24.

Remembering Sarah Burke

This report first aired on the one-year anniversary of Burke’s death.

Olenick met her idol as a teenage student at Momentum ski school in Whistler, B.C., where Sarah was an instructor. “She was always laughing, always smiling on the hill,” says Olenick. Students gravitated to her. Sarah was the only female instructor whom male campers requested to be paired with. If a student was willing to put in the effort, she was willing to give them as much time as they needed. Once, Olenick recalls, a camper insisted on practising in the pouring rain. Sarah stayed out with her all day. “She was so dedicated,” Olenick says. “She just wanted to give back to the sport.”

Like Olenick, Sarah first attended Momentum as a student when she was 14. It was there that Sarah met Rory Bushfield—a thrill-seeking adventurer, younger than Sarah by about nine months, who would become her best friend. They married in September 2010, on a scenic mountain estate about 25 minutes north of Whistler. Their wedding video, posted on YouTube, shows them standing at an altar made of branches, in front of wild green foliage. Sarah looks like a model from the cover of a wedding magazine—her white dress sloping down with tight ripples, like drifts on a distant mountain. Rory’s hair is short and ruffled, his features sharp and handsome. They hold hands, and repeat a vow: “All my love,” they say, together. Sarah purses her lips into a frown, the kind that holds back tears, and says that of all her wonderful moments, this will be her favourite. “All my life.”

Their love, friends say, was an endless party, a shared pursuit to conquer limitations. They rode on mountains together. They went snowmobiling, helicopter skiing, and on surfing trips to Hawaii. They shared a soft spot for animals, adopting a stray pup that had been living under a car in Northern Canada. Sarah named her ‘Dexter the Great.’ The demands of their lifestyle often meant that they travelled separately, but the couple was always connected, talking via Skype every night before bed when they were apart.

In their accomplishments, they were perfectly matched. Rory was a world junior moguls champion and the first skier to land a 1080 in a halfpipe competition. He’s competed in several X Games and has been a regular in extreme skiing videos. Online clips show him doing flips off bridges in Europe, castles in South America, and into frozen lakes in Canada. He skis down rocky mountains and lands backwards after big-air jumps. Meanwhile, Sarah’s pursuits appear more contained, more professional. She trained relentlessly, spending hours on a trampoline, memorizing the path of her body flipping through the air. At 29, the oldest pro in her sport, Sarah was still its finest athlete. Her strength and skill were unparalleled. Along with her four X Games gold medals, Sarah was regularly atop the podium at the U.S., European and Japanese Opens. She had five World Cup victories and won the 2005 world championships in Ruka, Finland. Last year she won gold in the Euro X Games superpipe event, after landing the 540. The Association of Freeskiing Professionals listed her as the “winningest female freeskier in the world.”

But her talents extended beyond the hills. She loved to cook, knit, bake and paint. In 2007, a group of the top female freeskiers and snowboarders came together in Whistler for a competition combining scores on the hill with a talent show off of it. Each competitor had to come up with a creative aspect. Some girls danced, some girls sang—Sarah whittled a table out of a piece of driftwood. She created a mountain scene with mosaic tiles for the tabletop. Craftsmanship was just one of Sarah’s interests. On Twitter she shared her love of the Hunger Games trilogy (“I think I like 2 the best”), and her affinity for Beyoncé’s music (“Oh yes, she’ll be coming on the road with me”). She shared her trips to Panama, Jamaica and France. To Toronto to catch a Jay-Z concert. Sarah joked about her husband’s snoring and his entertaining approaches to cooking dinner. She posted a photo of her father, laughing on his knees, trying to snowboard in Whistler. And she said how great it was to come home for the holidays, and to be surfing on the first day of 2012.

The world of freeskiing, especially on the women’s side, is a tightly knit community, where your biggest rivals become some of your closest friends. Much of this had to do with Sarah, a matriarch of sorts, who pulled everyone together. After getting women’s halfpipe into the X Games, she went on to win four gold medals in the competition. She was often the first woman to land new tricks—including a 1080 in a halfpipe competition. In 2007, Sarah was given the ESPY award for best female action sports athlete, the first skier to receive the honour. Around the same time, Sarah was campaigning with the Women’s Sports Foundation to have female freeskiers receive equal prize money.

Sportsnet image
Higher and faster was Burke’s sole motivation in the superpipe. (Roc Maloney/Sportsnet magazine)

Growing up, Sarah dreamed of winning an Olympic medal. As a professional skier, she lobbied for years to have superpipe skiing included in the Olympics (the superpipe is almost seven metres high, while most halfpipes reach just over four metres). Last year, her efforts finally paid off when it was announced that the event would be featured in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Though she would have been 31, she was still the gold medal favourite.

Over the years, her body had withstood the pain of injuries—broken ribs, torn knee ligaments, a broken nose, a broken back. Shattered by the news of Sarah’s latest injury, her fans and fellow athletes clung to hope, bound together, praying that she might pull off one last impossible trick.

At the University of Utah Hospital, doctors searched desperately for signs of life. Burke’s teammates were there, waiting for news. They stayed there for hours, well after midnight. Rory and Sarah’s family arrived, followed soon after by many of her close friends. Kristi Leskinen, Sarah’s long-time competitor and friend, flew in from New York. Trennon Paynter, coach of the Canadian halfpipe ski team and one of the couple’s best friends, made the trip from Squamish. Riley Poor, a filmmaker who helped Sarah with her popular videos, came in from Portland, Oregon. He knew something of tragic accidents, having lost the use of his legs after a diving accident at a party a few years ago.

Doctors determined that Sarah’s fall had ruptured a vertebral artery in her neck, one of four major arteries that supply blood to the brain. The rupture led to a severe intercranial hemorrhage. The tear was successfully repaired a day after the accident and Sarah was kept on life support while tests and scans were run. The minutes moved like hours, turning into days.

Outside the hospital walls, the world waited and hoped. Letters of support poured in. Rory read them to Sarah every night. Twitter erupted with the words “#BelieveInSarah” flashing almost every second. Don’t give up, Sarah—they said by the thousands—we believe in you. Friends in Salt Lake City brought food for Sarah’s family. They sat together and spoke about her—about everything she was, and is, and would be. They folded paper cranes, hoping to link a thousand together and hang them in her hospital room.

A press conference was scheduled six days after Sarah’s fall. It was a blustery Monday morning, the first day of snow in weeks. At the Clinical Neurosciences Center at the University of Utah, four microphones were lined up on a table in front of rows of empty chairs. A sheet of paper was handed to each reporter—a hastily typed notice that the press conference was cancelled. Based on the results of the most recent tests, Sarah’s family had decided to call it off. They needed more time, more tests, more hope. Sarah’s agent, Michael Spencer, and her PR rep, Nicole Wool, came down to greet the press and explain, again, that no further information would be provided. Their eyes were red and wet. Their voices wavered as they spoke.

The message reached the world outside, where people responded the only way they could: #BelieveinSarah. The Tweets rolled on for three more days.

At some point through this period, it was revealed that the cardiac arrest Sarah suffered on the hill—caused by the severe intercranial hemorrhaging from the fall—had deprived her brain of oxygen and blood. The damage was irreversible. She was gone. On the morning of Thursday, Jan. 19—nine long days after the fall—Sarah was taken off life support, surrounded by those who loved her most. Sarah slipped peacefully away at 9:22 a.m., as messages of hope continued to pour in.

For days after she died, the messages kept coming. If not for Sarah’s life, they did something for her legacy. They were words of grief, words of love—a wake for a life lost too soon, a celebration of a life lived wonderfully. They came from friends, from family, from strangers and even celebrities who were touched by Sarah’s story. Money poured in to help pay for hospital bills. Questions were raised about the safety of the sport, about the logic of always pushing further, always going higher.

But beyond the front-page headlines and TV tributes, those who knew and loved her remained silent. In the grip of unspeakable grief, words were lost—meaningless, like the coming days without her. Only silence could frame the tragedy. The echoes of her life filled the void.

Amidst that silence, one of Sarah’s closest friends offered a simple tribute. As the messages flickered through cyberspace, Trennon Paynter, her dear friend and coach, sent out two sentences that captured the sentiment of so many. It was an epitaph, of sorts, for the spirit of an athlete who was bigger than her sport, larger than the mountains she stood on. “She’s in every snowflake, every ray of sunshine, every breeze,” he wrote. “More than ever, now and always, I #BelieveInSarah.”

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