It was a routine manoeuvre on a well-worn halfpipe that left Sarah Burke clinging to life and a fledgling sport missing one of its biggest stars.
The 28-year-old freestyle skier was performing a trick near the bottom of the pipe in Park City, Utah Tuesday afternoon. She landed on her feet, but something went wrong, and she fell, hitting her head.
She was treated at the scene by ski patrol, then flown to the University of Utah hospital in Salt Lake City, where she remained Wednesday in a medically induced coma and breathing through a tube. Burke was listed in critical condition.
While her husband, skier Rory Bushfield, and other family members flew to Utah to be at her side, those involved in her sport took stock of the implications of having a key promoter sidelined.
Burke’s chosen event is the superpipe – like a halfpipe but wider and with taller walls – a sport that has been steadily gaining attention in recent years. She has dominated the competition at the Winter X Games, winning four gold medals in superpipe, and taken top honours at both the World Cup and world championships. She was set to defend her Winter X title later this month.
She also played a major role in pushing the sport’s legitimacy, successfully lobbying the International Olympic Committee to add it to the roster in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
“Sarah in many ways defines the sport. She’s been involved since the early days, in getting into the pipe,” said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. “She has also been more than willing to be part of the grassroots development.”
Part of that involved coaching children every summer at Whistler.
“It’s so much fun, the atmosphere, the vibe for the kids,” she told The Globe and Mail last July. “It’s always good to come here and remember ‘why’– the kids are so excited when they do their first 360.”
A native of Midland, Ont., Burke started skiing in Whistler’s halfpipe herself at 17. Free-skier Mike Douglas discovered her there performing triple 360s.
Her extent of her injuries remained unclear Wednesday, with doctors in Salt Lake City saying only that she had been sedated. Bob Foxford, the association’s physician, who has not treated her, said inducing a coma and cooling a patient to slow down their metabolism is standard procedure in treating a brain injury. The effect is to put the brain to rest and allow swelling to go down.
“This is the first serious head injury in an athlete that we’ve seen,” he said.
A group of Burke's family and friends, sitting in the hospital cafeteria late Wednesday afternoon, declined to speak with reporters. They said they planned to make a statement Thursday morning.
Meanwhile, an hour’s drive from the hospital through mountains rising from the scrublands, Park City Mountain Resort’s superpipe was deserted in mid-afternoon. The pipe, which slopes toward the base of the hill, has vertical walls as tall as a two-storey building.
“Sometimes the worst falls don’t look that bad,” said snowboarder Matty Mo, 27, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “That thing is 22 feet tall, really icy, and people are going really fast. They’re training for the X Games, so they’re getting into it.”
It was this same run that felled American snowboarder Kevin Pearce on the last day of 2009. He banged his face on the lip of the halfpipe wall as he practised a trick. At the time, doctors didn’t know if he would ever walk again.
“I feel like I remember being in my hospital bed and being like, ‘Oh, I’ll be able to go out and ride in a couple weeks,’ ” he recalled last month. “I had no idea what I was in for.”
Two surgeries and two years of intensive rehabilitation later, he was able to snowboard again a few weeks ago.
Accidents such as Pearce’s have played a key role in boosting the use of life-saving gear. National Ski Areas Association data shows helmet use among skiers and snowboarders has more than doubled in a decade.
Officials insisted Wednesday that the level of risk was acceptable, despite the injuries.
“[Burke’s crash]has the effect of making people more acutely aware of how important safety is,” Judge said. “There are inherent risks in any sport.”
As for the trick she was performing at the time of the accident, he would only say: “It was nothing out of the norm, nothing on the extreme end of the spectrum.”