Skip to content

Ski pioneer Sarah Burke mourned

'Groundbreaking' Squamish athlete remembered as 'champion on and off the slopes'

Sarah Burke, the four-time Winter X Games champion and ski halfpipe pioneer from Squamish, died on Thursday (Jan. 19) of injuries she sustained in a fall in the superpipe in Park City, Utah, last week. She was 29.

Burke, who lived in Squamish with her husband and fellow freestyle skier Rory Bushfield, died at 9:22 a.m. local time (8:22 a.m. PST) at University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.

"Sarah passed away peacefully surrounded by those she loved," stated a release from the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association (CFSA). "In accordance with Sarah's wishes, her organs and tissues were donated to save the lives of others."

Statements of remembrance and condolence poured in on social media when the news broke on Thursday. Among the hundreds who offered condolences on Burke's Facebook page was former professional tennis star Billie Jean King.

"I'm saddened by the passing of Sarah Burke," King wrote. "She was a great friend to all of us and gave so much of her time to the Women's Sports Foundation and helping young people. She was a champion on and off the slopes and will be greatly missed."

Another post on Facebook, from Michael McLaughlin, read, "Another beautiful life gone far too soon. My heartfelt condolences go out to her husband and family. Thank you for all you have given this world, Sarah."

District of Squamish officials issued the following statement about Burke's passing late Thursday:

"The District of Squamish was deeply saddened upon hearing the tragic news of Sarah Burke's passing. On behalf of Council and Staff, Mayor Kirkham would like to convey deepest sympathy to Sarah's husband, family and friends.

"Squamish is honoured that Sarah chose to make Squamish her home. As Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, we recognize and admire the contribution that dedicated local athletes like Sarah make to the community and to their sport. She was a pioneer in women's freestyle skiing and leaves behind a legacy for the next generation of competitive skiers. Sarah's passing is a tremendous loss, and our thoughts are with her family and friends."

The CFSA release announcing Burke's passing described her as "groundbreaking" in her sport.

After her fall in the Park City superpipe on Jan. 10, Burke was airlifted to hospital in Salt Lake City and underwent successful surgery to repair a torn vertebral artery on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

However, subsequent tests and neurological exams revealed that Burke suffered "severe, irreversible" brain damage due to lack of oxygen and blood after she suffered cardiac arrest at the scene of the crash, the CFSA statement said. It stressed that Burke's brain injury was not a result of trauma but due to a lack of oxygen.

"The family wishes to express their deep gratitude to Sarah's dear friends for their love and support, and for traveling to Salt Lake City to comfort the family," the statement said. "They would also like to thank the University of Utah Hospital and her physicians and care team in the Neuro Critical Care Unit for their incredible care and compassion."

CFSA CEO Peter Judge, whose organization oversees the national halfpipe team to which Burke belonged, extended condolences to Burke's family, teammates and coaches during a Thursday afternoon conference call.

"Certainly our hearts go out to Rory (Bushfield), her husband, and her family and to her coach Trennon Paynter, who was with her most of her time in the sport," Judge said.

Judge remembered Burke as a pioneer, an ambassador and a role model within her sport.

"Sarah was a person who, I think, in many ways was larger than life and lived life to the fullest. She was a phenomenal representative to the sport," said Judge. "I think her participation in what she chose to do transcended that sport and went into a larger realm based on who she was as a person.

"It will be a significant loss for her sport and for our community to not have her."

Judge continued: "She was one of those people that was very outgoing, very gregarious, and certainly saw her place in the world and what she was doing as being a gift and something she truly loved doing. That went all the way through everything she did whether it was her actually out on the hill competing, or whether it was her being involved in coaching camps and working with young people, or whether it was off doing philanthropic things.

"I know charities and working with young kids and giving back were certainly things that were very close to her and very important to her. She was the kind of person who took on her athletic role and saw it as a larger responsibility."

Burke was one of the leading advocates of having halfpipe skiing added to the Olympic program and that campaign was ultimately successful, as the sport will make its debut during the 2014 Sochi Games. Judge said Burke was instrumental in seeing that goal achieved.

"She was always very articulate and intelligent in terms of what she presented the sport to be and what she presented the ambitions to be," Judge said. "As a spokesperson for her sport, she played a huge role in its acceptance."

Before her passing, the Associated Press reported that Burke remained in sedation and on a breathing tube as of Monday (Jan. 16). A hint that Burke's condition might be getting worse came that same day, when a press conference scheduled to provide an update on her condition was cancelled moments before it was set to begin. CFSA officials explained that Burke's family wished to have more testing conducted first.

The conference was to be held at the University of Utah Hospital, where Burke was being treated, with two doctors on Burke's care team and Bushfield scheduled to speak.

Instead, Burke's publicist and agent met media at the conference site and were "teary-eyed" when announcing that it had been called off, AP reported.

As news of Burke's accident gained international attention in the past week, some major media outlets began questioning the safety of the sport, despite CFSA officials' insistence that the injury was an extremely rare case.

One of Burke's Canadian teammates and close friends fired back at critics of the sport before Burke's passing.

"I think that people don't realize that the most dangerous thing that any of us do any day is drive to the mountain," said Rosalind Groenewoud, another Squamish resident and reigning women's world champion, while in Whistler on Sunday (Jan. 15). "Our sport is not nearly as dangerous as driving a car.

"We all realize the risks we're taking as pro athletes, but we wouldn't take them if there wasn't a reason. It's the best feeling in the world and I don't think any one of us is going to give it up, despite the negative attention."

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks