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A few weeks ago, in the early days of freestyle training, on a blue-sky day in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana, Sarah Burke made a few rogue laps on the Olympic halfpipe she helped build.
Trennon Paynter, the Canadian freestyle coach who brought some of Burke’s ashes to the Olympic Games in Sochi, sneaked onto the course with them, wanting to give the pioneering freestyle skier the chance to try it out.
The COC had made a special glass canister for Burke’s ashes, branded with the Team Canada logo, and Paynter made a leather carrying case for that, decorated with her name, some snowflakes, and a little poem he wrote.
Paynter, a close friend of Burke’s husband Rory Bushfield, found a quiet moment, and slipped in without notice. He hiked up and down the pipe, scattering her ashes here and there, and poached his laps. He then took a gondola to the top of the mountain, the highest point he could find, and sat quietly with her and his thoughts, having a private moment, then left some of her behind, on the snow.
On another night, under starry skies in the athletes mountain village, he, Bushfield and members of the Canadian freestyle team, some of Burke’s closest friends, gathered quietly beneath the Olympic rings. They left some of her there too.
Sarah, he said, was in everyone’s hearts all literally all over these Olympics.
Burke fell during a routine trick on a halfpipe training run in Park City, Utah, and died from her injuries nine days later, on Jan. 19, 2012 at the age of 29.
Every freestyle athlete spent the Olympics in a state of ongoing tribute to the four-time X Games winner, for her work getting women involved in the sport and pushing the IOC to include halfpipe and slopestyle in the Winter Games.
And because of that, Paynter and Bushfield planned two years ago to bring Sarah’s ashes to the Olympics, knowing it was where she wanted and deserved to be.
They knew they weren’t following all the rules, about what you can and can’t do at the harshly regulated Olympics, and so they didn’t make any noise about it, instead quietly spreading her ashes here and there about the Olympic mountain sites.
Paynter called it a stealth mission, and on Saturday, the penultimate day of Olympic competition, he found himself a little surprised to be talking about it. It was, he said, intended to be a private, personal set of moments. And he knew he would pull it off regardless of the rules.
“I’m sneaky,” he said.
The IOC would not permit the freestyle athletes to wear stickers honouring Burke on their helmets, or armbands, but Paynter said that knowing the IOC protocols, they hadn’t expected to. Burke would, he said, be honoured through the Games no matter what, and a little piece of vinyl could not make a difference.
There were many other public displays, he said, including the heart-shaped formation staged by the halfpipe volunteers on Thursday night, much acknowledgment from the media who cover the sport, and the outpouring of respect and love from freestyle athletes from around the world that made it Burke’s event.
Bushfield had previously scattered some of Burke’s ashes in Ontario. Paynter took some to a beach in Hawaii this past Christmas. Now she’s in the mountains of southern Russia, where she had fought to be.
“She’s all over the place, adventuring around the world, as she should be,” Paynter said. “I know she’s up there, very stoked.”
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