A successful operation closed a torn artery in the neck of Canadian freestyle ski star Sarah Burke, but the 28-year-old remained in critical condition Thursday with doctors unsure whether she would recover.
Burke was injured Tuesday during a training run on the superpipe in Park City, Utah. After landing a trick, she fell over, rupturing her vertebral artery, a major vessel that supplies blood to the brain, triggering an intracranial hemorrhage.
While family members kept a vigil at the Salt Lake City hospital, friends and fellow athletes around the world waited for word, hoping for the best.
One of those was Summer Church, a 13-year-old freestyle skier from Boise, Idaho, who studied under Burke at a girls’ camp in Whistler, B.C. last summer. Burke, who taught Church how to do front and back flips onto an airbag, was different from other coaches, she said.
“She wasn’t really a coach,” Church said. “She was more like a friend.”
Burke always had suggestions when skiers were trying to master a trick.
“Other coaches would say, ‘Do this and you’ll nail it,’” Church said. “But then you don’t, and they have no more ideas.”
After Church hiked back up the hill, Burke would always have some new idea for her to try on her next attempt.
Coincidentally, Church’s father had signed her up for next summer’s camp just hours before Burke’s accident.
Creating opportunities for girls like Church has been one of the achievements of Burke’s career. When she started pulling tricks in the halfpipe more than a decade ago, competitions in the sport were reserved for men. She relentlessly and successfully lobbied for women’s events, which she went on to dominate. Her efforts ensured a superpipe event for skiers will be included in the next Olympic games, in Russia in 2014.
“As is always the case, sports are built on stars who transcend the sport and are known outside it,” said Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Skiing Association. “Sarah has always been an inspiration.”
He said the team held a meeting Wednesday night and vowed the skiers would soldier on.
“Everyone is a bit shocked and processing what’s happening,” he said. “We’re dealing with athletes who have an understanding of the risks involved.”
From the outside, virtually every manoeuvre Burke performed looks nerve-racking, particularly on the icy, two-storey-high walls of the Park City superpipe.
Church, who has competed on the same pipe as a junior, said the steep walls give skiers extra momentum.
“Even if you take a little wobble, you will fall and you will slide,” she said. “You’ll get to the top and pop out really far, and it’s really scary. You land it and you keep going and you’ll go up the other side.”
For Burke, the sport has been her life. A native of Midland, Ont., she first started skiing at Whistler at 14, in the same summer camp where she would later teach. It was there that she met her husband, Rory Bushfield.
In a clip from a coming documentary, released this week, the couple described their relationship with each other and with the sport. Appropriately, when Bushfield proposed, he wrote the words “Marry me, Sarah?” in the snow, then flew her overhead to see them.
“It’s what our lives are, being on the hill, and there’s a reason for that – it’s amazing,” she said in the documentary. “It’s where we met, it’s where we play, where we live.”
For now, doctors and family members are playing a waiting game. In a statement, the University of Utah hospital, which is treating Burke, said physicians need time to monitor her.
“With injuries of this type, we need to observe the course of her brain function before making definitive pronouncements about Sarah’s prognosis for recovery,” said neurosurgeon William T. Couldwell, who performed the surgery on Burke. “Our neuro critical care team will be monitoring her condition and response continuously over the coming hours and days.”