When he heard the news of Sarah Burke’s death, Olivier Rochon embraced the memories. He recalled how she’d coached him in moguls. How he’d spent two weeks with her at a freestyle ski camp in Whistler, B.C., an opportunity that allowed him to marvel at Burke’s abilities and her boundless commitment to being the best.
But in the sadness that followed Burke’s death, not once did the 22-year-old Rochon consider giving it up – no more aerials, no more flying upside down and landing on a steeped pitch. It turned out he wasn’t the only one on the Canadian freestyle team to feel that way.
“We’ve watched these kids pretty closely,” aerials coach Daniel Murphy said. “And what they say is true: They are choosing to remember Sarah for the way she skied and who she was. And I think that’s how she wants to be remembered, not for scaring people away.”
The Canadian freestyle moguls and aerials team had been competing outside of Canada when Burke fell this month during a seemingly innocent training run and died from brain damage and cardiac arrest. On Wednesday, the team held its first en masse media session to promote the Canada Post Grand Prix at Canada Olympic Park this weekend. Instead of avoiding the Burke tragedy, the athletes and coaches spoke of it openly and explained how the most admirable way to honour their lost teammate was to continue doing what she loved to do – not that they didn’t miss her.
“In Lake Placid [last weekend] before the aerial finals, they did a showcase,” said Rochon, his event’s World Cup leader. “All the finalists came down [the hill]and at the bottom we stayed together and had a moment of silence. It was very sad. But in competition, I focus on being confident. Once I get that, there’s no doubt in my mind. I know I can do well.”
Four World Cup stops into this season and the Canadian team has done exceedingly well, even without 2011 world aerials champion Warren Shouldice, who announced Wednesday he was “shutting it down for the rest of the season” because of a concussion. Peter Judge, the Canadian Freestyle Association chief executive officer, pointed out that already the team has won nine medals with four athletes on the podium.
The star of the show remains Mikael Kingsbury, the 19-year-old moguls ace from Deux Montagnes, Que. Kingsbury has won all four events and is keen to keep the streak going, whatever it takes.
“I work on what people don’t see but my coach sees,” Kingsbury explained. “More speed, my posture. I want to be consistent and I wanted the season to start the right way. … You have to take a step forward, not look back.”
That recurring theme is also working for Phil Marquis. Last weekend, he got to share the moguls podium with Kingsbury. It was also the first World Cup medal for the Quebec City skier.
“For me, it’s a big year,” Marquis said. “I tore my left shoulder ligaments then kept separating my shoulder. I got surgery done and didn’t ski all last year. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I’m back in the game. So to get my first podium showed people I am back.”
Still, results aside, the coaches monitor the emotional mood of their athletes. Team meetings have been held and counselling has been offered for those who feel the need to talk about what happened to Burke.
For Judge, his task has also included defending his sport against an onslaught of questions dealing with the inherent danger and what now, what next.
“They’re all the questions everybody asks,” Judge admitted. “But the sport has progressed over 35 years and built an infrastructure and safety record that’s second to none. The equipment, the training programs, the way the hills are constructed, as much as it’s a concern, it’s not a concern.”
Rochon believes that. A year ago, he was suspended from the Canadian team for disobeying rules. He didn’t work hard enough, needed to mature. Now that he has, he values what he’s gained and what Sarah Burke represented.
“She was so passionate about skiing. That’s what I remember the most.”