After every turn down the competitive halfpipe, Roz Groenewoud pauses to touch the sticker that adorns her helmet.
The decal — a slash of red handwriting that simply says “Sarah” — is a tribute to her friend and teammate Sarah Burke. The gesture is her way of saying “I miss you” and “You should be here.”
Burke, a four-time X Games champion, died in January 2012, two years before women’s halfpipe — the freestyle discipline that she so fiercely and beautifully pioneered — was to make its Olympic debut in Sochi.
And so Groenewoud is left to carry Canada’s torch in the event, while she carries Burke’s memory in the sticker on her helmet, and in the silver snowflake pendant she wears around her neck — the same snowflake Burke had tattooed on her foot.
“Sarah is definitely on my mind going into the Olympics,” Groenewoud said, pausing to fight back tears.
Groenewoud — known on the ski circuit as “Roz G” — travelled to the 2012 Summer Olympics to experience the Olympic vibe, and it was during those two weeks in London that the full weight of Burke’s absence truly hit home.
“The trip was unbearably hard,” said Groenewoud, the 2011 world champion. “It was the first time I realized I would be going to Sochi without Sarah, and it was like getting a kick in the chest, kind of fully coming to terms with that.”
The past two seasons have been sad ones for Canada’s freestyle skiers — first with the death of Burke, then followed two months later by the death of Canadian skicross racer Nik Zoricic. Both were just 29 and at the height of their careers. And both left a deep hole in the heart of the freestyle and skicross teams.
“I think Sarah’s memory definitely pushes me to ski harder, pushes me to get over my fears faster, and it pushes me to work harder in all aspects of my life,” Groenewoud said.
Burke, who was a driving force behind the inclusion of both halfpipe and slopestyle in the Sochi Olympics, was the first woman to land a 720-degree jump, a 900 and a 1080 in a halfpipe in competition. She was the leading contender for gold in Russia before she died following a training accident in Utah.
Zoricic sustained fatal head injuries when he crashed into the safety netting at World Cup race in Switzerland in March 2012.
“Losing Nik, that’s your worst nightmare come true, a day like that on the hill,” said Brady Leman, Zoricic’s longtime friend and teammate. “But it hasn’t made me more afraid, I think it’s made me more aware, it’s widened my focus when I’m on the hill and when I’m looking at a race track. I’m definitely more aware of what can go wrong.”
Zoricic, said Leman, was all about the details. He was the guy who was always in the video room poring over race footage.
“And he was always talking to people, always talking skiing. He would notice the smallest things and he was always working on the smallest things that if he wasn’t around I personally probably would have brushed off,” said Leman, who battled back from a string of injuries to win two World Cup titles a year later.
“He would work on these things and it would improve him, so after watching him do that for awhile I thought maybe I’d better step it up a bit. It all about the details. Just perfection perfection perfection.”
Skicross racer Kelsey Serwa, a gold medallist at both the 2011 world freestyle championships and 2011 Winter X Games, said the seemingly avoidable nature of Zoricic’s death made it even more difficult to deal with. His death, and the ensuing Swiss police investigation, was a topic of CBC-TV’s “The Fifth Estate.”
“It’s hard,” Serwa said. “The frustrating part is that no-one has stepped up and said ‘Oh, we made a mistake, and we realize that, and so we’re going to do things to change it and fix it so it doesn’t happen again.’
“I hate for it to be in vain,” the 24-year-old said before giving in to tears.
Zoricic, his teammates say, will be dearly missed in Sochi.
“Oh yeah,” Serwa said. “We talk about him all the time. It’s actually funny because stories will just get going, little things like ‘Hey, remember when Nik did this?“’
The 24-year-old Groenewoud, who won the 2012 X Games title less than 10 days after the death of her friend, can’t wear the Sarah sticker on her helmet in Sochi — International Olympic Committee rules forbid it. She was considering other options such as embroidering the same sticker, or perhaps one of a snowflake, inside her helmet.
“I’m exploring how to keep how I connect to her competing still alive at the Olympics, within the Olympic rules and guidelines,” said Groenewoud, who, along with Burke’s many other friends, will wear her snowflake pendant in Russia.
Last season, Canada’s skicross team unveiled Descente suits that paid tribute to Zoricic and his unique sense of style. The pants looked like a pair of jeans to commemorate the time in 2009 Zoricic wore skinny jeans during a World Cup race. The former alpine skier — fondly known as “Zoro” — had just switched to skicross and didn’t have racing pants he felt were aerodynamic enough.
And hundreds of young skiers across Ontario wear “NZ” stickers — created by some of the coaches at Craigleith Ski Club, Zoricic’s home club — on their helmets. The NZ stickers also adorn boulders and walls and course markers on mountains as far away as Chile, France, and Austria, courtesy of young Canadian skiers who thought taking the stickers on their travels would be a fitting tribute to the athlete they looked up to.
Zoricic’s family has been working with Toronto lawyer Tim Danson, with hopes the International Ski Federation will implement more stringent safety measures in the sport.
“We are in serious discussions in the hope of a positive resolution,” Danson said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press. “The next few weeks are critical.”
Burke’s husband Rory Bushfield, who stayed away from the snow sports for a time after his wife’s death, will be in Russia to see what she helped create.
“I watched her do all the work,” Bushfield said. “I don’t have any plans to do anything special, other than to go there with Sarah’s mom and dad, make it happen. They watched her do this whole thing, too. We’re all proud of her for it.”
Families of both Burke and Zoricic have created foundations in their names, that provide scholarships to young athletes.
“I think it was a great loss for women in sport in Canada,” said alpine snowboarder Caroline Calve. “She was a great role model, and for the first time we’ll have halfpipe skiing at the Olympics, so hopefully we’ll be honouring her at the same time.”
Burke will also be one of a number of notable Canadians who will appear on a postage stamp this year.