Freestyle Ski Star Sarah Burke Dies of Injuries

Canadian skier had crashed during Utah training run.

Thursday, Jan 19, 2012  |  Updated 4:46 PM EDT
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Sarah Burke died Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, nine days after crashing at the bottom of the superpipe during a training run in Utah.

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Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke died Thursday, nine days after crashing at the bottom of the superpipe during a training run in Utah.

Burke, who lived near Whistler in British Columbia, was 29. She was injured Jan. 10 while training at a personal sponsor event at the Park City Mountain resort.

Tests revealed Burke sustained "irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest," according to a statement released by Burke's publicist on behalf of her family.

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

As a result of her fall, Burke tore her vertebral artery, which led to severe bleeding on the brain, causing her to go into cardiac arrest on the scene, where CPR was performed, according to the statement by publicist Nicole Wool.

Wool said Burke's organs and tissues were donated per her wishes.

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

Burke was the best-known athlete in her sport and will be remembered for the legacy she left for women in freestyle skiing.

She set the standard for skiing in the superpipe, a sister sport to the more popular snowboarding brand that has turned Shaun White, Hannah Teter and others into stars.

Seeing what a big role the Olympics has played in pushing the Whites of the world from the fringes into the mainstream, Burke lobbied to add superpipe skiing to the Olympic program, using the argument that no new infrastructure would be needed — the pipe was already built — and the Olympics could get twice the bang for their buck.

She won over the Olympic bigwigs, and the discipline will debut at the Sochi Games in 2014.

Burke, who was favored to win a fifth X Games title later this month, would have been a favorite for the gold medal in Sochi, as well. Instead, sadly, the competitors will have to toast to her memory when they make their debut on what will be the sport's grandest stage.

"Sarah, in many ways, defines the sport," Peter Judge, the CEO of Canada's freestyle team, said before her death. "She's been involved since the very, very early days as one of the first people to bring skis into the pipe. She's also been very dedicated in trying to define her sport but not define herself by winning. For her, it's been about making herself the best she can be rather than comparing herself to other people."

Burke's death continues a sad string of stories involving some of the best-known athletes in the wintertime action-sports world. 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.

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

The sport's leaders defend the record, saying mandatory helmets, 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.

But there are few consistent, hard-and-fast guidelines when it comes to limiting the difficulty of the tricks in the halfpipe, and as the money and fame available in the sport grew bigger, so did the tricks. Snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton once told The Associated Press that much of this was self-policed by athletes who, because of the nature of a sport often considered less competitive and more communal, knew when to draw the line.

It's an opinion shared by many.

"There are inherent risks in everything," Judge said. "Certainly, freestyle skiing has one of the greatest safety records of almost any sport. Freestyle is a very safe sport in large part because we had to build a safe sport in order to get into the Olympics."

Burke's biggest accident before this came in 2009 when she broke a vertebrae in her back after landing awkwardly while competing in slopestyle at the X Games. It was her lobbying that helped get slopestyle — where riders shoot down the mountain and over "features" including bumps and rails — into the X Games after much back and forth.

It wasn't her best event, but she felt compelled to compete because of her advocacy of it. She came to terms with her injury quickly.

"I've been doing this for long time, 11 years," she said in a 2010 interview. "I've been very lucky with the injuries I've had. It's part of the game. Everybody gets hurt. Looking back on it, I'd probably do the exact same thing again."

She returned a year after that injury and kept going at the highest level, trying the toughest tricks and winning the biggest prizes.

The tragedy brings a much-too-early end to a life of fame the skiing star lived both inside and out of the halfpipe.

A native of Midland, Ontario, Burke won the ESPY in 2007 as female action sports athlete of the year.

In 2010, she married another freestyle skier, Rory Bushfield, and they were headliners in a documentary film project on the Ski Channel called "Winter."

In her interview two years ago, Burke reflected on the niche she'd carved out in the action-sports world.

"I think we're all doing this, first off, because we love it and want to be the best," she said. "But I also think it would've been a great opportunity, huge for myself and for skiing and for everyone, if we could've gotten into the (Vancouver) Olympics. It's sad. I mean, I'm super lucky to be where I am, but that would've been pretty awesome."

A little more than a year later, with Burke's prodding, her sport was voted in for 2014.

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