Sarah Burke left lasting legacy on Olympics before death

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- If Sarah Burke were here, she and Roz Groenewoud would stand at the top of the Olympic halfpipe and say 1-2, 1-2.

The Canadian teammates always supported each other in that way, even if each saw herself on top.

A pioneer in her sport, the Canadian was a driving force behind getting the sport into the Olympics. It has been two years since her death after a training crash, and yet her dream will live on as halfpipe makes its debut for female skiers Thursday.

"My dream was always to win the Olympics," Burke said in the documentary, Winter Sessions: Rory Bushfield and Sarah Burke.

Parts of the film produced by The Ski Channel were shot six months before her death in January 2012 and released after it. In sometimes haunting interviews, Burke discusses her pioneering efforts in the sport, the toll on her body and the dreams it sparked for her.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do in the Olympics," she says in the film, "but that's what I wanted to do."

Groenewoud will try to do that in honor of Burke now as the freeskiing community keeps alive the memory of one of its best.

"She was extremely competitive, extremely driven, but that never colored her ability to be compassionate and generous with compliments and stuff like that," Groenewoud says. "She was amazing at being able to differentiate those parts that you don't have to be an asshole to be a strong athlete."

When she died Jan. 19, 2012, the loss rippled beyond the skiing community.

To be sure, it was the tragedy of it. Burke was 29, an athlete at the top of her sport with six X Games medals. With an infectious smile, caring personality and magnetism, Burke made an impression on anyone she met.

"She was the bright smiling face at the bottom of the course that brought everybody's spirits up," legendary freeskier Simon Dumont said. "Every time we ski, if there's a thought of Sarah, it makes you feel a little bit better, so she's always with us."

Burke's husband, Rory Bushfield, and parents, Jan Phelan and Gord Burke, have made the trip to Sochi, seeing through a dream she had pursued. It will be difficult, but, with most things tied to Burke since her death, it will be a celebration.

Overcoming fear

Burke was always fearless, her mother says. At 2 years old, she took a tumble down the 16 stairs in their home. Phelan expected to find her daughter crying.

"And she picked herself up, and she declared, 'I meant to do that,'" Phelan says. "She was pretty much heavy duty like that from the start."

To do what Burke did — usher freeskiing from its infancy to a sport rich with opportunities for women — she would need to be. Although Burke started as a moguls skier, she quickly fell in love with the halfpipe.

With the sport still in its early days, that meant at many contests she would have to push to be included and compete among the boys. Early in her career, that became routine when she wasn't turned away from contests.

It also revealed her toughness. Her father remembers a U.S. Open when she returned to the lodge after a training session and burst into tears. She had badly broken her thumb, but she held it together until she got down the mountain.

"She refused to let anybody see her cry no matter how busted up she was," Gord Burke said. "I think the guys admired her for that. She was tough."


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