There is a Canadian athlete having a massive impact on the 2022 games even though she’s not there in person — Sarah Burke. The displays of athleticism on the mountains in China are, in many ways, a part of her growing legacy.
Burke, the world’s first female professional freeskier whose lobbying efforts made it possible for women’s halfpipe and slopestyle skiing to become Olympic sports, was a Sochi Gold Medal favourite when she tragically passed at the age of 29 after a training accident.
Jan. 19 was the 10th anniversary of Burke’s death. In that time, her influence on the Olympic world has only continued to grow through a new generation of athletes who she's inspired.
Although her own Olympic dreams didn't come to fruition before she passed, seven athletes from three countries are now in Beijing following her lead — not only figuratively through inspiration, but literally, through funding that placed athletes at these games.
The Sarah Burke Foundation alone was responsible for five of its “Up and Coming” Scholarship winners and two of its “Spirit of Sarah” Scholarship recipients competed in the Olympics with Teams USA, Canada, and Great Britain.
The recipients include Liam Gill, a member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in the N.W.T. and the only Indigenous member of this year's Canadian snowboard team and represented Canada in Snowboard Halfpipe. Maddie Mastro and Tessa Maud competed for Team USA in Snowboard Slopestyle and Snowboard Halfpipe, respectively. Winter Vinicki competed for Team USA in Women’s Aerials. Kristy Muir will represent Team Great Britain in Women’s Ski Slopestyle, and Dylan Ladd was selected as a Team USA Ski Slopestyle First Alternate.
Burke’s husband, professional skier Rory Bushfield, together with her family, created the Sarah Burke Foundation.
I spoke to him about the work of her foundation and the feats of the athletes she’s inspired.
Anna Phelan, sister of the late skier Sarah Burke, holds a plaque at a press conference where her sister and seven others were inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in Toronto on Wednesday, October 22, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/CP)
Sportsnet.ca: It is just over ten years from when you lost Sarah, when you reflect back on that time, what comes to mind?
Rory Bushfield: I think about her every day a lot. I definitely do. But I have definitely a lot of joy, man. I'm just glad that we started the foundation. It helps a lot with just being able to deal with the loss there and the whole thing. But reflecting back, I'm just pretty proud of what we've been able to do. And I think she would be, too.
SN: Speaking of the foundation and its 10-year anniversary, when you look at the scholarship winners, they're thriving at the highest stage, what's that mean to you?
RB: It means a lot. It really makes me super proud of those kids and their hard work. Just living in the spirit of Sarah and remembering her legacy. And those kids. Just thriving, seven of them at this Olympics that we were able to help. Most of those kids in the Olympics, in the action sport realm, have been inspired by Sarah. But these younger kids that we were able to actually help financially to see them, it makes me smile, it's awesome.
SN: A big part of her legacy is the events that people are competing at in the Olympics, females specifically, being an advocate and lobbying for slope style and women's half pipe. Now they are not just part of the games, but marquee events people are circling their calendars for and staying up in the middle of the night to watch. What does that mean to you?
RB: Oh, man, it's really awesome to see because Sarah worked so hard at that. She was lobbying to get half-pipe skiing into the Olympics in Vancouver and snowboard half-pipe was also lobbying to be in there. And they made it in, and ski half pipe didn’t in the Vancouver Olympics. And now, of course, it was a huge let down for Sarah and all the half-pipe skiers.
But instead of being bitter, Sarah, she took three weeks over time and went to every event at the Olympics and supported the women's half-pipe snowboard and just cheered them on and showed so much camaraderie. And I think she really made an imprint on the people that were behind the Olympic committee, that were behind making the decisions of what gets in and what doesn't. The way that she did it was very graceful, and her lobbying efforts were well done and effective.
Sarah Burke looks on during a news conference at the Winter X Games, in Aspen, Colo., Jan.21, 2009. The late Burke and figure skater Liz Manley are among those heading to Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. (Nathan Bilow/CP)
SN: Do you hear anecdotal stories of how people have drawn inspiration from her and tried to follow in her footsteps?
RB: I hear those stories all the time. Somebody will text me a long story just about something that happened to them and how they've been just touched by Sarah. And some people write me, I never even met this girl, but I can't believe how much she's impacting my life. Just to see those kids knowing who she was and knowing what she was all about and her being able to carry on that inspiration to young athletes, even in death. It's very powerful, man. It's powerful to watch.
We work really hard. Like, my friends and family and everybody that works in the foundation, we work really hard on it, but it's all thanks to Sarah, really. We get to so many people that want to support because of what Sarah is all about. It's really cool to see all those kids at the Olympics with the same dreams and the same spirit and just remembering Sarah’s legacy.
SN: Is there a specific example of a member of the Canadian team or someone at the youth Games who gave you one of those stories that really stuck with you?
RB: Oh, man, there's a lot of stories, trust me. Cassie Sharpe, she told me some really sweet things after she won Olympics Gold in Pyeongchang. She got gold in half-pipe. But she's just such a sweet person, kind to everybody and just a fearless competitor, such a good skier. And yeah, she said some really nice stuff just about how Sarah had inspired her. And she was very thankful and didn't get to spend as much time with her as she had hoped.
Sarah Burke jumps to a gold medal in the half-pipe FIS world Cup event Friday, March 17, 2006 at Apex Mountain in Penticton, B.C.. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)
SN: The foundation started in 2012. You've already done so much. What's next?
RB: Sarah always put a lot of effort into raising money for St. Jude Hospital. And with the foundation, we've been able to give some grants to St. Jude, but I'd like to do more of those and obviously help as many up-and-coming athletes as we can. That's the dream. The more we can do, the better.
SN: Is it at all bittersweet, for you, the fact she has created opportunities for others in the sport but she never got that medal moment and she never really got to benefit from the fruits of all that labour?
RB: For sure. It's easy to see it that way. Of course, I think that. But at the same time, this is the way that the cookie crumbled, and this is the best we can do with what's happened. And I think in tragedy, we've been able to overcome pretty well. Not overcome, but just be able help. Turn some tragedy into some beauty.
Watching the Olympics and watching the half pipes, of course, it's bittersweet, but it's also such a big smile to my face. And I've always loved the Olympics. I'm a sucker for watching events in the Olympics because it really is just the world stage. It's like you get to go there and compete for your country. There's a lot of things you can do to make your country proud. That's one of them right there. I just think it's pretty neat when it's like a Canadian and American gets up there and they get their anthem played and the whole country is watching.
It's very inspiring, I think, for sport all around the world. And Sarah being able to inspire kids towards that and help them, it brings a smile to my face at the end of the day, of course, it's bittersweet, but it's also beautiful in my eyes.
SN: If there's one thing that you want people to remember about Sarah that they can apply to their life, what would that be?
RB: I'd like just to spread the message of being brave and kind along the way, to be a fearless competitor and not be afraid, but never let that get in the way of helping others and being kind. That's how Sarah lived. That's the message that she would want to get out and that's the message we've been trying to push out to you.