October 21, 2020

Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke dead at 29

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Sarah Burke was an X Games star with a grass-roots mentality — a daredevil superpipe skier who understood the risks inherent to her sport and the debt she owed to it for her success on the slopes.

The pioneering Canadian freestyler, who helped get superpipe accepted into the Olympics, died Thursday after a Jan. 10 crash during a training run in Park City, Utah.

Burke, who lived near Whistler, in British Columbia, was 29.

“Sarah was the one who, in a very positive way, stood in the face of adversity and asked, ‘Why not?’” said Peter Judge, the CEO of Canada’s freestyle team. “What she would have wanted was for her teammates and others in her sport to stand up and also say, ‘Why not?’ To benefit from the significant opportunities available to them, being able to compete in the Olympics and the X Games. Those were the things she wanted and cherished and fought for.”

A four-time Winter X Games champion, Burke crashed on the same halfpipe where snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustained a traumatic brain injury during a training accident on Dec. 31, 2009.

Tests revealed she sustained “irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest,” according to a statement released by her publicist, Nicole Wool, on behalf of the family.

She said Burke’s organs and tissues were donated, as the skier had requested before the accident.

“The family expresses their heartfelt gratitude for the international outpouring of support they have received from all the people Sarah touched,” the statement said.

Judge said the accident did not come on a risky trick, but rather, a simple 540-degree jump that Burke usually landed routinely.

“It was more the freak nature of how she landed,” he said. “The angle of how she hit must have been exactly the right way, to create a very bizarre circumstance.”

Burke will be remembered as much for the hardware she collected as the legacy she left for women in superpipe skiing, a sister sport to the more popular snowboarding brand that has turned Shaun White, Hannah Teter and others into stars.

Aware of the big role the Olympics played in pushing the Whites of the world from the fringes into the mainstream, Burke lobbied to add superpipe skiing to the Winter Games programme, noting that no new infrastructure would be needed.

Her arguments won over Olympic officials, and the discipline will debut in two years in Russia, where Burke likely would have been a favourite for the gold medal.

She was, Judge said, as committed to mentoring up-and-coming competitors and giving clinics as performing at the top levels.

“She was a kind person who was easygoing and approachable,” Judge said. “There was no pretense about her.”

News of Burke’s death spread quickly through the action-sports world, where the Winter X Games are set to start next week in Aspen, Colo., without one of their biggest and most-beloved stars.

In this March 12, 2008, file photo, Sarah Burke, of Canada, celebrates on the podium after winning the women's halfpipe freestyle title at the World Cup finals in Valmalenco, Italy. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

“She’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve known in my life, and that’s about the only thing I have to say about it,” said American superpipe skier Simon Dumont, a multiple X Games medalist.

Jeremy Forster, the programme director for U.S. Freeskiing and U.S. Snowboarding, said freeskiers would remember Burke “first, as a friend, and then as a competitor who constantly inspired them to do greater things.”

“She was a leader in her sport, and it’s a huge loss for the freeskiing community,” Forster said.

“I am eternally indebted to Sarah for what she has done for this sport,” said American superpipe skier Jen Hudak. “Every turn I ever make will be for her.”

A moment of silence for Burke was observed before Canada’s women’s soccer team played Haiti in an Olympic qualifying match in Vancouver on Thursday night.

Burke’s death is sure to re-ignite the debate over safety on the halfpipe.

Pearce’s injury — he has since recovered and is back to riding on snow — was a jarring reminder of the dangers posed to these athletes who often market themselves as devil-may-care thrillseekers but know they make their living in a far more serious, and dangerous, profession.

The sport’s leaders defend the record, saying mandatory helmets and air bags used on the sides of pipes during practice and better pipe-building technology has made this a safer sport, even though the walls of the pipes have risen significantly over the past decade. They now stand at 22 feet high.

Some of the movement to the halfpipe decades ago came because racing down the mountain, the way they do in snowboardcross and skicross, was considered even more dangerous — the conditions more unpredictable and the athletes less concerned with each other’s safety.

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