Family of Midland's Sarah Burke sees halfpipe skier's dream come true
CANADA POST UNVEILED A STAMP IN SARAH BURKE'S MEMORY MONDAY, FEB.3, AT THE MIDLAND POST OFFICE. IT IS ONE OF THREE STAMPS HONOURING PIONEERS IN WINTER SPORTS
MIDLAND - When Sarah Burke’s dream becomes reality on Feb. 20 in Sochi, Russia, her father will cherish the moment.
Gord Burke insists there’s no reason to feel sorry for him because Sarah won’t be there to experience the Olympic women’s halfpipe ski competition she fought so hard to have included in the Winter Games.
“The emotion that always seems to lead is intense pride,” Gord said.
He certainly won’t be the only one feeling that way about Sarah Burke, the great pioneer of her sport from this picturesque town of 17,000 on the southern end of the 30,000 Islands – just north of the hills of Horseshoe Valley, where this unlikely story really started.
For years, Sarah made it her business to tell anybody and everybody that her sport — think snowboard halfpipe on skis – belonged in the Olympics.
On July 4, 2011, the International Olympic Committee agreed and added the event, made popular at the X Games, to its Sochi schedule.
But, tragically, Sarah did not live to see the day where she would compete for Olympic gold.
On Jan. 10, 2012, Sarah, 29, went into cardiac arrest following an injury during a training session in Park City, Utah.
She fell on her head doing a trick and suffered irreversible brain damage. Nine days later, she was dead.
It seems so unfair. One trick goes wrong – and one remarkable life ends, just two years away from a very realistic chance of standing on top of the Olympic podium.
Gord Burke, however, refuses to view this sequence of events in that light. There was no doubt he’d travel to Sochi to watch the halfpipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. And when he’s there, alongside Sarah’s mom, Jan Phelan, and Sarah’s husband, fellow freeskier Rory Bushfield, he’ll probably share the same trademark smile as his daughter, knowing that her sporting ambition has come true.
“She worked very hard for this,” Gord said. “She’s just been sort of loved around the world as such a decent, beautiful and kind person. That gives me a chance every day to be proud. I think all the athletes will be thinking of her and she’s always on their mind. We’ll just be a part of it (in Sochi).”
Throughout a 40-minute interview about his daughter, Gord never comes close to expressing sadness, choosing instead to focus on the happy days — and the intense drive of his youngest daughter.
The Olympics first entered Sarah’s mind at age five when she was a figure skater.
“It’s a strange thing, actually,” Gord recalled with a chuckle. “Sarah, when she was much younger, did figure skating and she was pretty passionate about it. If anybody ever asked her, what are you going to do when you grow up, she’d say ‘I’m going to the Olympics.’ That was her standard answer when she was five years old.”
Over time, though, it probably became clear to everybody but Sarah that the Olympics seemed like the longest of long shots. She traded her skates for skis, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents. She spent a good chunk of her time going on the halfpipe at Horseshoe Valley, even if that meant having her lift ticket pulled a few times (the terrain park was solely for snowboarders when she was younger).
It seemed as far away from the Olympics as one could get.
“There was no category for women when she started,” Gord said. “I have to say ESPN (which founded the X Games) was incredible with her right from the beginning. There were just no girls who did the sport and you really couldn’t have a women’s category. But, she showed up and they let her forerun (do training runs on the course) and be a part of it. For most of her career, she competed mostly against guys.”
Thanks to her persistence, doors opened and women started taking more interest. Burke and fellow Canadians paid out of their own pockets to form the first national team early last decade, bringing aboard coaches and setting the stage for more progress.
Burke was the first world champion in her sport when it made its debut as an FIS event (the freestyle skiing governing body) in 2005. There were many other firsts for tricks and jumps en route to four X Games gold medals, significant sponsorship and, in general, an ideal life doing what she loved while based out of B.C.
Along the way, she pushed for equal pay for women — and never gave up on that Olympic idea. She wrote countless letters and used her status in the sport to give her thoughts to people who could make a difference in the Olympic movement.
“She was pretty low-key about it, but she never missed an opportunity to put a word in,” Gord said. “She was so admired as a person … and ESPN and the Olympic committees would take a listen to her. She was all about fairness for women and she believed passionately that halfpipe should be in the Olympics. She wrote letters and made the connections that were important.”
Burke’s teammates and competitors haven’t forgotten. Some will wear a necklace with a snowflake, just like the tattoo Sarah had. Others honour her with their own tattoos or with words on their snowboards or helmets.
Gord had a special moment last month in Aspen, Colorado, when he presented Canadian Roz Groenewoud, an ex-teammate of Sarah’s, with a silver medal at the X Games. There were warm greetings from skiers and interview requests from American media, showing how Sarah remains very much of a part of this developing sport.
“None of us really know what comes after we live on this planet, but she sure is in the hearts of everybody,” Gord said. “Every athlete I know in freestyle skiing will be feeling she’s with them at the Olympics.”
The Sarah Burke Foundation helps her memory live on, raising funds for the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis (a place Burke visited many times to lend a helping hand) and awarding scholarships to promising athletes.
The foundation got a kick-start when fundraising to pay for medical costs after her death far exceeded the estimated $200,000 in medical bills. It’s just one more example of the worldwide respect the ski community has for the champion.
At home, Canada Post is putting Sarah on a stamp just prior to the Olympics. The Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously. Gord’s neighbours, meanwhile, got a bylaw changed in the summer of 2012, allowing for the street where he lives to be renamed Sarah Burke Way.
“I packed in a lifetime in 30 years,” Gord said. “I think I’m luckier than many people. It sounds crazy, but it really is true. I had a magical lifetime with her.
“She’s left me with enormous gifts of friendship and every day there is more recognition of her.”
Longtime Midland Secondary School teacher John Faragher and some of his students got an up-close view of Sarah Burke on the halfpipe long before she became an X Games star.
“I remember her doing tricks and somersaults when we were on ski trips at Mount St. Louis,” Faragher said. “Guys would be sitting in a line just watching her.”
Though Burke left the school in her final year to pursue a ski career in B.C., Faragher remained close with Sarah and her father, Gord — and was devastated when she died following a training accident in Utah in January 2012.
Since then, Faragher and fellow teachers and students at the 700-student school have made sure Burke’s memory is honoured.
Midland student Sara Pilon and art teacher Lorraine Leitch combined on a portrait of Burke, while teachers Holly Millinoff and Paul Balabuck worked with their shop classes to create a stainless steel silhouette of the skier.
The school presents the Sarah Burke Memorial Award (a $500 annual scholarship) to a graduating student and the most outstanding skier award also is named after her.
When ski halfpipe makes its debut at the Olympics in Sochi, Faragher will be watching with his family during a ski trip to Whistler.
“I’m following the example set by her dad where we’re looking at this as a celebration for her,” Faragher said. “I’m sure some moments are going to pop up (during the Olympics) and people will definitely recognize her. She played such a big part in the sport getting in.”
A look at the Canadians who will be competing in the Sochi Olympics in Sarah Burke’s event, women’s ski halfpipe:
- Hometown: Calgary
- Age: 24
- Skinny: Won silver medal at X Games this year … Won FIS World Cup finals and finished second at Sochi World Cup last year … 2012 X Games champ and 2011 world champ.
- On Sarah: “Sarah Burke will always be a hero/role model of mine.”
- Hometown: Calgary
- Age: 21
- Skinny: Third at X Games in 2013 … Won silver at X Games in 2012 and also finished second at 2009 world championships.
- On Sarah: “Sarah Burke was the most amazing woman. She was kind, loving and accepting. She is the best example of never giving up.”
- Hometown: Edmonton
- Age: 21
- Skinny: Third at Sochi World Cup last year … First place at Association of Freeskiing Professionals championship in 2011 and third in world championship same year.
- On Sarah: “The way she lived her life was nothing but inspirational. She progressed and pushed for the opportunities of women’s freeride skiing. She was also one of the most beautiful people I knew inside and out.”