The uplifting, unparalleled life of Sarah Burke
Words: Leslie Anthony
Mike Douglas rarely wears a suit. So it’s no surprise that when he pulled one from the closet for his annual gig hosting Whistler’s Pro Photographer Showdown last April, he’d forgotten when it last saw the light of day. During intermission, twiddling in the jacket’s pocket, came a reminder. He fished up a small, smooth rock with the words “Mike & Susie” (his wife) written on it. The stone was a place setting from the last time he’d worn it—two years earlier at the wedding of his friends Rory Bushfield and Sarah Burke.
It might have been a sad reminder of the loss, three months prior, of the woman he’d often referred to as his “little sister”—the gifted, driven freestyler from Midland, Ontario, who’d arrived as a wide-eyed adolescent 15 summers before at the Whistler mogul camp and gone on to become one of the greatest female athletes the world has known. Instead, the rock now seemed a welcome talisman to a legacy that soared to deservedly greater heights at each remembrance. Back onstage, Douglas informed the raucous crowd of his discovery, holding the pebble aloft with a smile. Despite his upbeat tone, an uncharacteristic hush descended.
“No moment of silence,” he chided 2,000 onlookers. “You know what Sarah would want.”
Then, as happened the week prior at a tearful memorial at Blackcomb’s halfpipe, scene of so many of Burke’s triumphs—and during the much-anticipated life celebration that followed when thousands crammed the Whistler Village Square in a sea of love that radiated down every avenue—Douglas counted down to the now infamous Moment of Noise.
“Three, two, one!”
The deafening roar that filled the cavernous convention center might have raised the roof of a lesser structure, but here it simply lifted tribal spirits already augmented by other forms of the same. Skiers, boarders, photographers, filmers, snow people, dirt people, water people, competitors, weekenders, business folk, and politicians all made it clear: the many benefactions of the Mother Goddess of Freeskiing would never be forgotten.
Were she observing from the great beyond, Sarah Jean Burke—beloved wife, daughter sister, and aunt, vaunted pioneer, fighter and medalist—would simply have wondered what all the fuss was about.
In a winter filled with tragedies in the ski community, the untimely passing of Sarah Burke was surely the least probable and most inexplicable. Of all the possible accidents in the global park and pipe scene, a life-snatching fluke was all the more freakish knowing its victim. Though the protracted drama of Burke’s accident lasted an eternity for family, friends, and fans that kept vigil, the damage that ended her radiant life happened in the blink of an eye.
On Tuesday, January 10, 2012, during a private training session in the Eagle Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort, Burke launched a routine flatspin 540—one of hundreds she’d executed in her life. “We’d decided she should work on it and she was,” said Canadian Ski Halfpipe Team coach Trennon Paynter, who had spoken with Burke as recently as that morning. The session was in preparation for the 2012 Winter X Games, and, in the bigger picture, the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia—that for the first time would include ski halfpipe, for which he and the indefatigable Burke had lobbied relentlessly. “She’d been training and competing that alley-oop flat 5 on and off for years, but it wasn’t locked in 10-for-10 perfect, and she wanted to get it down. Sometimes she’d do it and other times take it out, because she didn’t have the landing percentage.”
This time, as occasionally happens, Burke caught an edge upon landing and residual momentum whiplashed her onto the snow. It was a hard knock but nothing compared to many of the crashes she’d famously walked away from in a 13-year career of bumps, bruises, and breaks. The consensus from observers was that the accident didn’t look like much; perhaps a tweaked collarbone. But Burke didn’t get up, and after being attended by emergency personnel, she was airlifted to the University of Utah Hospital. The incident circled the globe in seconds through the Twitterverse, details few and speculation rampant, adding to the confusion of the next nine days.
It emerged that the fall had ruptured one of four major arteries supplying blood to the brain. A resulting severe intracranial hemorrhage sent Burke into cardiac arrest, and though CPR was performed on the scene, she’d remained without pulse or spontaneous breathing. Placed on life support under standard protocols for brain trauma, hope flickered briefly when the arterial bleeding was successfully repaired by surgery. But rounds of neurological tests and imaging over the next week confirmed the worst: lack of blood oxygen after cardiac arrest had resulted in severe, irreversible brain damage. The agonizing decision was made to remove her from life support. At 9:22 a.m., January 19, Sarah passed away peacefully surrounded by Bushfield, her parents Gord and Jan, and her sister Anna. In accordance with the wishes of the most generous person many had ever met, her organs and tissues were donated to save the lives of others.
Shock fell over the ski world. The forever smiling woman who’d ignited a passion for the sport in thousands and inspired countless others to reach for their dreams, who’d never backed down from a challenge, who’d battled so terribly long and hard for her sport, for equality, and to keep herself in the game—conducting all with an equal measure of grace and iron will— never had a chance in the final fight. And yet, even in those first harsh moments, the tiniest comfort could be taken in the fact she’d been victorious at the greatest game of all: life.
Winter in Midland, a small town at the south end of Georgian Bay, is typical of most of Central Canada’s lake country: cold, snowy, and longer than most groundhogs wished. Like other Canadian kids, Sarah embraced the outdoor activities of the brumal season and even declared a desire to go to the Olympics—as a figure skater. She first felt the muscular grip of ski boots at age 5, but it would be awhile before the gears began to turn on her future career.
“When Sarah was young, we didn’t ski a lot,” Gord told an interviewer working on the CBC documentary Fearless in the wake of her death. “Just for a school break…as well as night-skiing at the hill we lived just a few minutes from. She was about 11 when her mom and I split up, and I was looking for something that would keep her occupied and happy, so we did a bit more skiing at that point.”
Horseshoe Valley Ski Resort isn’t big—just 350 vertical feet—but it’s long been a hub in the Southern Ontario freestyle ski scene. Burke grew up following her father through the same ferocious bumps I trekked north from Toronto on weekends to tackle in the original hot dog days. Taking up the challenge, she began competing in moguls and, with trademark determination, made the Ontario freestyle team by 17. “I was fortunate that I could take the time off and drive Sarah and her friends,” Gord recalled. “We’d all stay in hotels and they’d go compete, and it was just great to be with them all.”
By the time Sarah stomped an unheralded 720 for a comeback victory in the inaugural 2003 WX Games women’s SuperPipe, I’d been writing about her for years. As with many in the early freeski milieu, she was good in the bumps but had a penchant for air. “I first met her when she was 14,” says Douglas, her original coach at John Smart’s Momentum Ski Camps (formerly SMS) on Whistler/Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier. “The biggest thing I remember is her smile. She had presence. But I could also see she was talented—good in moguls but better in the air. She wanted to fly.”
Her first major win came at the 2001 U.S. Open of Freeskiing in Vail, at the tender age of 18. Her good looks and masterful skills landed her in magazines, movies, and ads, adorning billboards from Los Angeles to Tokyo. With major sponsors and comps around the world, she lived the jetsetter life of an international fashion model. The difference being, she had to keep up the athletic performance. In addition to film and photo shoots on every continent, she had to appear in as many contests as possible, attend industry expression-sessions like Superpark, invest time in training and learning new tricks. After a short turn in the New School limelight, Burke’s wide-eyed innocence shifted slightly.
“When I first started, every opportunity seemed exciting, and I was all ‘send me anywhere and everywhere,’” she once told me. “But I’d hear all these other pros saying ‘Nahhh, like, I don’t want to go there,’ and I couldn’t believe they were being so negative. But after a solid year traveling, I realized it was important to have more than two nights a month at home.”
That realization prompted a move to sleepy Mammoth Lakes, California, which had a longer season, better weather, and more reliable park than Ontario. It was a good place to chill and train, away from the hectic Whistler scene. In Mammoth, she upped her game while enjoying the battle for female supremacy with Kristi Leskinen, who became a close friend.
After an up-and-down 2002 campaign in which the focus of competition shifted from big air and slopestyle to halfpipe, she’d battled back in 2003, winning virtually every comp and topping the Global X Games SuperPipe podium, her ever-smiling face three-stories high on the Jumbotron. It seemed a fitting acme at the time (though really only the beginning) for the woman almost wholly responsible for ESPN’s capitulation to include women’s pipe. But the then 20 year old had little taste for media attention. At the bottom of the pipe, she was far more interested in having me photograph her with her mother and sister than wading into the phalanx of network cameras and microphones.
Sarah would eventually grace every podium in women’s pipe skiing. Her crowning achievements were an F.I.S. World Championship in 2005 and four Winter X Games SuperPipe gold medals (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011). She was honored, fêted, and elevated in every way—a plethora of film segments and magazine profiles; the first skier to win an ESPY (of which she remained proudest)—and even a few “hot lists” in magazines like FHM and People.
Despite the apparent élan of her accomplishments, it wasn’t always easy: She’d battled back from crashes and injuries with verve, particularly a broken vertebrae suffered in a sickening crash at the 2009 WX Games Slopestyle. After a year of physical therapy, Paynter had worried whether she could regain her mental composure. He needn’t have: The first woman to land a 720, 900, and 1080 in competition had no intention of holding back and, as usual, also had something lurking in her back pocket. Sarah’s final run at the 2010 WX Games Slopestyle virtually defined the concepts of pro and, dare I say, balls.
“Are you going to try the 900 again?” Paynter had asked tentatively.
“No, I’m gonna do a 1260,” Sarah said, smiling, referring to a trick no woman had ever attempted in competition. She was known as a practical joker (see Scarah.com for a sample), but this was no prank. She threw the 1260—on the same hit on which she’d broken her back the previous year—and though she slid out on the landing, there was triumph in even attempting it.
The fuss in Whistler, of course, was not about the prodigious achievements of an exceptional athlete, but the generosity of spirit of an exceptional person. The kind who uplifted everything she touched and everyone she met with energy, positivity, and patience, a radiance that continued even in death. It was less like one of the brightest lights ever to grace skiing had been extinguished than a solar flare had just exploded. It burned in the emotional outpourings of tens of thousands of fans, the rallying of the tight-knit global skiing community, and in the support offered to Burke’s family and husband when it was revealed that none of the professional skier’s several medical insurance coverages had been operative at the time of her out-of-country accident.
With the family possibly on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars, her despairing agent, Michael Spencer, created a GiveForward.com page for Sarah with no idea what might happen. The response was instant and overwhelming: The famous and infamous, friends and strangers, the rich and the destitute, anonymous ski bums and whole families, who admired her as a role model, gave anywhere from thousands of dollars to the change in their pockets. In the six weeks the site was open, it raised well over $300,000—enough for Burke’s medical bills and the Whistler life-celebration. Altogether, it made the case for what some pundits will argue: Sarah Burke was the most influential female skier ever.
“She’s been a superstar her whole life,” Gord said at the Whistler celebration, “but I’ve never been more proud of anything than for the kindness she showed other people.” He went on to describe the time he brought a teenaged Sarah to Whistler, and she used spending money he gave her to buy a souvenir T-shirt for him. He wore it, now faded and torn, at the memorial.
In Bushfield’s speech, his first public words since losing the woman he met as a teen mogul skier, kindness was also the theme. One anecdote recounted a day when the pair had been in a hurry to catch a flight after Burke’s Jeep wouldn’t start. Bushfield quickly repacked everything into another vehicle, then couldn’t find Sarah. “I’m looking around and there she is in the ditch,” he said, “with a kid from the street who has Down’s syndrome and is always concerned with keeping water moving through the ditch. She says to me, ‘Hold on a second—we’re clearing the ditch here!’”
Among a blizzard of defining moments I’d witnessed, the surreal scene at the 2001 Core Games in Naeba, Japan, will always seem most prophetic. Steered into the cavernous Prince Hotel by games officials and savvy PR flacks, past young admirers bowing ceremoniously and hissing “It’s her!” the young woman was seated at a table while reporters closed in. Rolling with the absurdity like a pro, Sarah lit up the room with her most innocent 18-year-old smile and laugh, deflating the tension and putting everyone at ease.
A cynic might say the cameras loved Sarah for both cachet and cliché: preternaturally cute, blond, North American, a warrior hero as an anomaly in the boy-band progressive freestyle movement. But the reality was that she earned every iota of attention paid her. That morning in Japan, in fact, she stunned the crowd with ridiculous airs on a massive, notched quarterpipe. The follow-up media event in the Prince Hotel was a staged conversation with Japanese freestyler Tomoko Kojima, the sole other female participant. The topic was women and jumping, and the fact that at this point both were forced to compete with men. Sarah held forth on her personal mission to change that.
“I love competing with the guys,” she’d responded to one translation. “It’s fun being the lone girl that gets all the attention but frustrating when you can’t get into a competition simply because you’re female—when all they’ll let you do is forerun. I’m looking forward to competing with all the girls coming up through the ranks.”
She’d stated her intention to enter as many comps as possible the following season, not only to push herself forward but to pull in other women as well. “I really want to get some girls’ categories happening out there,” she summarized. As the world would soon see, this wasn’t just wishful thinking. The inclusion of ski halfpipe in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games was Sarah’s longtime dream, so she was rightly ecstatic when the International Olympic Committee announced its acceptance in April 2011.
When she told the 29-year-old Paynter she wanted to be on his Alberta freestyle team in 2005, he was shocked since Sarah wasn’t an Alberta native, and it was rare for established pros to associate with programs or coaches at the time, he says. “At the [2005 F.I.S. World Championships] in Finland, I was shy about asking her if she wanted me to coach her, too, because she was already the best in the world,” he said. “But I asked and she said, ‘Hell yeah!’ So I did, she won, and wrote me a nice thank you letter.”
Burke became unstoppable and would have been the favorite at the 2012 WX Games. But it was not to be. The impact of her death in January, on the very community she helped foster, was exacerbated by the fact that Winter X opened four days later. Longtime friend Jeff Schmuck of Newschoolers.com put the titanic deflation into perspective: “Jen Hudak [2010 WX SuperPipe gold medalist] asked me, ‘If X Games was cancelled would you care?’ I said no.”
Of course that kind of backing out was something Burke wouldn’t have tolerated for a second, and the ability of athletes to carry on in the face of her death spoke to the maturation of a community that 10 years ago could never have handled such a crisis. “It was made easier [for them] because they knew in their hearts that Sarah would want them to charge harder and not second-guess themselves,” says Schmuck.
Canadian teammate Roz Groenewoud, a one-time Momentum camper coached by Sarah, won her first Winter X gold at the event with the highest score in women’s SuperPipe history. “I just tried to let all of that love lift me up,” she said after the win. “I definitely felt like I had Sarah with me.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to end this story, to stop talking about Sarah. Ultimately, I suppose, I could tell you that she liked cheese (“It’s kind of my thing,” she told a reporter last summer); she bought ice cream for discouraged campers; and Bushfield proposed by writing “Marry me Sarah!” in the snow and flying her over it in his plane. But in the end, those are details when it’s the big picture that counts. No one will ever forget Sarah Burke, and perhaps the most resonant note on that was sounded by childhood friend Andrew Goatcher, who used his time at the microphone at the public memorial in Whistler to thank her for all the things for which he’d never had the opportunity: for teaching him that girls were tough and what real determination was; for being a prankster partner-in-crime when they were schoolmates; for introducing him to Rory; and for all the fun. He finished with something he’d overheard that he felt not only perfectly summed up his own lifelong friendship but the wild ride we’d all been on with the woman who captured the imagination of a worldwide fraternity, inspiring an entire generation of skiers and non-skiers.
“Nothing will be the same without her,” he said, looking out over the sea of faces illuminated by thousands of flickering candles, “but everything is better because of her.”
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