Sarah Burke lived as if she had no fear, and pushed out the bounds of human endeavour in an archetypally Canadian way – conquering winter to have fun. But though she succeeded on so many levels, her sport of freestyle skiing killed her. It is difficult to make sense of that.
Canada loves its Olympians, and she had the true spirit of an Olympian. She did not accept limits – not for girls or women, and not for sport. She was so good at her sport of half-pipe (a type of freestyle in which a skier flies off a curved lip upside down) that the X Games, a competition of extreme sports, was obliged to let women compete in it. And she won four gold medals. She lobbied to have the Olympic Games include half-pipe skiing for the first time at Sochi, Russia, in 2014. She was a favourite to win gold. The sport belonged to her the way a sport sometimes belongs to its best athlete.
Tough? She had broken her back, her ribs, her nose, torn knee ligaments. “Part of the game,” she said. It’s a horrible toll for a game.
She always came back. A skiing magazine wrote that she “doesn’t just take crashes, she takes spectacular, bone-shattering, nose-breaking, concussion-inducing wipeouts on a consistent basis.” A filmmaker specializing in skiing, Murray Wais, said he knows no other athlete, female or male, as “tough as Sarah.”
She wasn’t fearless, though – she was scared. “Of course! But I like being scared and pushing my limits. I like the challenge and the risk,” she said. So she was brave.
She was an innovator. “She was always one to stand in the face of adversity and say, ‘why not?’” said Peter Judge, head of a national freestyle group. Innovators don’t accept limits, and that is how the limits are breached.
All this in an era that is increasingly safety-conscious – the era in which concussions in sport are beginning to be taken seriously. But in hockey, many of the concussions are preventable. People take gratuitous shots at the heads of others, who in turn take shots at their heads. In freestyle skiing, the risks, which are at least as unforgiving, are from nature and oneself. Ms. Burke lived for her sport, which is still young and may yet, we hope, find safer approaches.
A world without innovators is inconceivable. Ms. Burke couldn’t be anything else, even after all those broken bones. She was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things, pushed the limits and died doing so. It is hard to make sense of the loss of such promise to a game.