When she wasn’t soaring through the cold mountain air, her body spinning intricate tricks high above the superpipe, freestyle skier Sarah Burke spent most of her life fighting to take part in her chosen sport.
First, she had to persuade the boys on the hills at Whistler to let her compete. When they agreed, she bested many of them. Next, she spent years pressing sports network ESPN to include her event at the X Game, a showcase for up-and-coming sports. She succeeded, and went on to win four gold medals.
Her greatest victory came earlier this year when the International Olympic Committee bent to her lobbying efforts and included superpipe in the 2014 games in Sochi. But in a tragic turn, she will not see that day.
The 29-year-old died on Thursday morning in a Utah hospital, nine days after falling over while landing a routine manoeuvre during a training run at the pipe in Park City.
Ms. Burke was the brightest star of a young sport: articulate and good-looking, she cultivated a high profile off the hill, designing clothing and appearing on television as a commentator, gaining a legion of fans and admirers around the world.
But despite her popularity and her long struggle to move her sport into the mainstream, those who knew her well say she retained a girl-next-door charm.
“Sarah was a person who in many ways was larger than life and lived life to the fullest,” said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. “At the time it wasn’t in, she was not bitter and twisted...then when it was in, she was very gracious.”
The accident that killed her was sheer bad luck. She was performing a flat-spin 540, a routine trick she had done countless times before, on a well-used superpipe that has seen thousands of skiers and snowboarders over the years. Ms. Burke landed on her feet, but whiplashed onto her side. It didn’t look serious at first, but the fall ruptured a major artery in her neck.
Bleeding in her head triggered a heart attack, which starved her brain of oxygen. She was rushed to hospital in Salt Lake City. As Ms. Burke remained in a coma, her parents, husband and sister stayed by her bedside, while fellow skiers made the trip to Utah to hold vigil at the hospital. After several days of tests, doctors determined she had suffered irreversible brain damage.
Ms. Burke spent the first 18 years of her life in Midland, Ont., a modest town of about 16,500 people on the shores of Georgian Bay, a two-hour drive north of Toronto. As soon as she started walking, her parents, Jan and Gordon, both artists, had her on skis at nearby Horseshoe Valley resort.
At age 14, she went to Whistler, B.C., for a ski camp, where she first met Rory Bushfield, whom she married many years later. Ms. Burke quickly grew bored with alpine skiing and gravitated toward freestyle, fascinated by the big air she could achieve from the jumps few girls would attempt at the time.
“The school took trips to Mount St. Louis for recreational ski days and Sarah spent most of the day in the terrain park to the amazement of all who watched her,” recalled John Faragher, one of Ms. Burke’s teachers at Midland Secondary School.
She ultimately relocated to Squamish, B.C., full-time, and her mother later joined her there. As she climbed to the top of her sport, she also made her mark with a life-of-the-party personality.
“The fondest thing I can think about Sarah is that she was always this sweet girl and so polite, nice to everybody,” Mike Douglas, Canada’s former national moguls ski coach, told The Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this week. “Even though she’s become one of the superstars over the last five or 10 years she hasn’t changed. None of it’s gone to her head at all.”
She used that stardom to mount a successful push for IOC recognition, speaking out at public events and talking to any official who would listen about why her sport deserved a spot.
As the reality of her death sank in, fellow athletes took stock of this legacy.
“I am eternally indebted to Sarah for what she has done for this sport -- every turn I ever make will be for her,” U.S. superpipe star Jen Hudak, who had been at the hospital, wrote in a email.
Calgary’s Warren Shouldice, who trained alongside Ms. Burke, said no amount of safety equipment could have prevented what happened.
“There’s definitely a sense of why and how could this happen and how tragic it is to lose someone in the freestyle family because it is a very tight community,” he said. “It was one of those terrible injustices.”
Ms. Burke, despite her fearlessness, knew these risks well, as she told TSN Radio just two days before her crash.
“I’ve broken every bone you can imagine. Broke my back, ribs, nose and torn a lot of ligaments. But that’s just part of the game and you try and be as calculated as you can,” she said. “But it is a sport that’s trial and error, you’ve got to try it on snow some time, and it’s not always going to go right.”
With reports from Allan Maki and Janet Rae Brooks