Sarah Burke’s friends will bring their snowflakes to Sochi, wearing necklaces shaped like the snowflake tattoo the late Canadian star had etched on her foot.
“When they accepted halfpipe skiing, my first thought was, ‘This is Sarah’s Olympics,’ ” said one of Burke’s many proteges, American halfpipe skier Angeli VanLaanen.
Each time an athlete in the new Olympic sports of ski halfpipe and slopestyle steps into the starting gate, they’ll have Burke to thank.
A beloved mentor among her competition, Burke lobbied hard for a number of causes: Equal pay for women in action sports, inclusion of all the freeskiing disciplines for women in the X Games and, ultimately, acceptance of those events into the Olympic Games.
Burke died Jan. 19, 2012, nine days after a training accident on a halfpipe in Park City, Utah, and about nine months after the International Olympic Committee said “yes” to her longtime dream.
The four-time Winter X Games champion was 29, in the prime of her career.
It was a loss that stole away the soul of the sport and its best skier. Burke was the first woman to land a 720-degree jump, a 900 and a 1,080 in a halfpipe in competition. She would’ve been the favorite to win halfpipe skiing’s first Olympic gold medal. Instead, it hits the biggest stage in sports looking for a star – trying to replace the irreplaceable.
“A lot of people say she’s still the most influential girl in freeskiing today,” said Mike Hanley, a longtime freestyle skier and coach. “She pushed the technical level of the sport so far. But she had such an amazing sense of balance in life, between the image she put out and the level of technical skiing she was capable of. She was the full package that I’d hope all the girls out there are aspiring for.”
Instead of everyone chasing Burke in Sochi, there will be three or four top contenders. They include Maddie Bowman, the 20-year-old from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., who is coming off a win at the Winter X Games. VanLaanen, who overcame a scary and hard-to-detect bout with Lyme disease, could be in the mix.
There’s also Canada’s Roz Groenewoud, a one-time teammate of Burke, who is rounding into form after knee injuries. Before every contest, “Roz G” and Burke used to stand at the top and shout, “Let’s stay on top, one-two, one-two.”
It’s a lonelier starting tent these days.
“She was extremely driven, extremely competitive, wanted to win, wanted to do her best, but it never colored who she was,” Groenewoud said. “It never made her less compassionate or less generous with compliments or anything like that. It’s a good lesson for people outside of sports, as well. A good universal message.”
Slopestyle makes its Olympic debut in both skiing and snowboarding.
The sport is a wild ride down the mountain, featuring turns off rails and jumps with steeply angled takeoffs. Triple-flipping jumps, the likes of which American skier Nick Goepper landed to win the X Games, will be the winning trick for the men on both skis and snowboards.
“It’s a great addition,” said Jake Burton, creator of the modern-day snowboard. “Slopestyle is something that every kid who snowboards does on a certain level. It’s at the biggest resorts and the tiniest ones in the Midwest, where they put up small jumps and build a few rails.”
American Jamie Anderson is the favorite to take gold in women’s snowboard slopestyle, though Silje Norendal of Norway sprung a surprise by knocking her off at Winter X.
On the men’s side, adding slopestyle to the snowboard program was largely viewed as a way to get another day of Shaun White, who will compete in both slopestyle and halfpipe, where he’s going for his third straight gold.
But he is no sure thing on the slopestyle course. Canada’s Mark McMorris has one of the most difficult set of tricks, but he could be limited after breaking a rib at the X Games. His teammate, Max Parrot, isn’t far behind. Parrot won the X Games with back-to-back triple-cork jumps.
“I know what it takes to win, so I’m just going to do my thing and not watch the others,” Parrot said.
On hand for all the action in Sochi will be Burke’s husband, Rory Bushfield, who stayed away from the snow sports for a time after his wife’s death but wants to be in Russia to see what she helped create.
“I watched her do all the work,” Bushfield said. “I don’t have any plans to do anything special, other than to go there with Sarah’s mom and dad, make it happen. They watched her do this whole thing, too. We’re all proud of her for it.”
Though nobody feels her loss more than her parents and her husband, it’s no stretch to say the loss will be felt near and far.