Sarah Burke

by SOPHIA HELLER '17


We have definitely had our fair share of snow this winter. The Winter Olympic Games includes a wide variety of ice and snow related sports, some of which are hockey, ice dancing, figure skating, curling, ski slopes, and snowboarding courses. However, until this year, one event was missing: the women’s ski halfpipe. So why is it in the Olympics now if it wasn’t before? A great deal of the reason is due to a courageous young woman named Sarah Burke. Sarah was not just a skier, but a pioneer who passed away tragically before her time.

Sarah Jean Burke was born on September 3, 1982 in Barrie, Ontario. At a young age, Sarah’s father mortgaged everything he owned to help her with her dreams to be a professional skier. She watched boys compete, and she knew that she could outdo them all. Thus began her quest to give women the opportunity to compete in skiing events, specifically, the freestyle ski halfpipe. Sarah’s Canadian background encouraged her to enjoy the outdoors as a child, and she had originally pledged that she would go to the Olympics; however, not as a skier, but as a figure skater.

Overtime, her interest and passion for skiing grew, sparked by her parents’ separation when she was eleven. It was at this time that she started entertaining the idea of pursuing skiing professionally. Sure enough, Sarah made the Ontario freestyle team by age 17. When she won the U.S. Open of Freeskiing a year later, she became an icon across the globe. Eventually, she began transferring her interests from slopestyle to the halfpipe, and proceeded to win the Global X Games Superpipe event. She would go on to win every event in every competition of women’s pipe skiing. Sarah began pushing everywhere for girls’ categories in events that were previously only run by men. Her biggest goal, however, was the Olympics.

Although Sarah was passionate about the women’s ski halfpipe, most people don’t know what a ski halfpipe is. Imagine placing a tin can sideways into a block of clay. The resulting shape would resemble a halfpipe. In short, a halfpipe is a structure used in gravity extreme sports traditionally made of wood, concrete, metal, earth, or snow. Snowboarding, skateboarding, skiing, freestyle BMX, and incline skating all use halfpipes in their events. The ski halfpipe in particular involves a single athlete on snow skis riding down a halfpipe made of snow and ice performing tricks. However, there are safety concerns for this event. Helmets are required to be worn, airbags are stationed on the sides of the halfpipe during practice, and every athlete is made well aware of the risks beforehand. Despite precautions, there are always accidents.

On January 10, 2012, Sarah was training on a halfpipe in Salt Lake City, Utah, performing a 540 flat-spin that she had done successfully hundreds of times. After landing the trick, she fell hard on the bottom of the halfpipe and hit her head on the ice. The accident did not appear to be very severe, until Sarah went into cardiac arrest. She was air-lifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City, but nine days later she passed away due to the injuries she sustained. She had torn a vertebral artery, and though she was resuscitated and placed in surgery, the damage was already done. Sarah died on January 19, 2012.

Although Sarah was gone, she remained an icon for freestyle skiing and continued to have a huge impact on both her sport and the people she touched during her life. She is celebrated as a pioneer for her sport, and the climax of her life’s work was on February 20, 2014. It was on this day that the finals of the first women’s ski halfpipe in the Olympic Games were conducted. Maddie Bowman of the United States won gold, Marie Martinod of France won silver, and Ayana Onozuka won bronze. However, these three women, and everyone present, will remember this day as Sarah’sday, the day her dreams of an Olympic halfpipe skiing event came true.