Canadian freeskiing star Sarah Burke, who had been under critical care with serious head injuries since a fall in the superpipe on Jan. 10, passed away Thursday at the University of Utah Hospital.
Burke, 29, sustained her injuries while training in the Eagle Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort. She landed badly after attempting a spinning trick and struck her head after tumbling to the bottom of the icy U-shaped pipe.
The famous athlete, a four-time X Games champion and a favorite to win the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, passed away at 9:22 a.m., in the company of family and new husband, Rory Bushfield.
Said Powder magazine editor Derek Taylor: “She was basically our Danica Patrick and Mia Hamm. She used to compete with the guys and hold her own. Athletically she was a step above. If she didn’t win, the story was ‘look who beat Sarah.’ “
A statement released by the family explained that Burke had suffered a ruptured vertebral artery, one of the four major arteries supplying blood to the brain. The rupture led to a severe intracranial hemorrhage, which caused her to go into cardiac arrest at the crash scene.
Related: the incredible Sarah Burke in photos
Burke was placed on life support while doctors repaired the artery. But she had sustained severe irreversible brain damage because of a lack of oxygen and blood flow after cardiac arrest.
In accordance with her wishes, her organs and tissues were donated to help save the lives of others. (For a touching glimpse into the lives of Burke and Bushfield, view the recent Ski Channel profile titled “Winter,” posted below.)
The accident has raised the issue of safety in terms of superpipe riding at the elite level. Burke’s accident occurred at the same resort venue at which snowboarder Kevin Pearce was critically injured while training on Dec. 31, 2009.
Pearce, who had been training for his Olympics debut, suffered traumatic brain injuries and endured a long and comprehensive rehabilitation period. He had to re-learn how to walk. His snowboarding career is over but last month he rode a snowboard for the first time since his accident.
The Eagle Superpipe is not unique. But a lot of elite skiers and snowboarders train there, and they continue to push their sports to new and more dangerous limits, performing multiple spins and flips high above 22-foot walls.
Skiers and snowboarders risk striking their heads on the lips of the superpipe walls while attempting to land their tricks (Pearce), or on the rock-hard bottom of the U-shaped superpipe after an awkward fall (Burke).
Snowboarding star Gretchen Blieler told ESPN before Burke died that there are no guarantees.
“And that is the risk we all take with us every day in life,” Bleiler said. “But that is why we must live and live well because nothing is guaranteed. I think Sarah would tell all of us to keep going, keep waking up early to land those tricks you’ve been dreaming of, but only if it’s done with 100 percent passion, pure fire, discipline and commitment.”
Burke was the star of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Assn., the first female skier to land a 1080-degree rotation, or three full rotations. She was instrumental in lobbying efforts to get women’s freesking (superpipe and slopestyle) into the Olympics for their debut at Sochi.
“In many ways, Sarah defines the sport,” Peter Judge, the CFSA CEO, told the Salt Lake City Deseret News. “She was one of the first people to get into the pipe and bring skis to the pipe. She’s always been very dedicated in trying to define her sport, and it’s never been about just winning. It’s been about pushing the limits. She’s always been more concerned about making herself the best, rather than comparing herself to other people.”
Judge understands the safety of the superpipe is likely to come under more scrutiny in the wake of the latest tragedy. “There are inherent risk in everything.” He told the AP. “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.”
The news of her passing spread quickly through the tight-knit skiing community. Many of Burke’s peers are either in Killington Vermont for this weekend’s Dew Tour event, or in Aspen preparing for next week’s Winter X Games, which she’s won four times. Burke’s role as a pioneer, spokesperson, and performer in skiing community is one that simply can’t be filled.
Professional freeskier Pete Olenick, a close friend of Burke and Bushfield, is among the shattered. He was a witness to the accident that looked “like a crash we’d all taken before” at first. But reality set in quickly. Olenick was among those keeping a vigil for Burke in the days that followed. On Thursday the stunned skier told Powder Magazine from Vermont how saddened he was for her friends and family, “We all know how much she meant to the sport, how good a friend she was to everybody, and how much her life impacted everybody else.”
Simon Dumont, a multiple X Games medalist told the AP, “She’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve met in my life, and that’s about the only thing I have to say.”
“Shocked and saddened,” is what former Olympian Jerry Bloom tweeted. “Sarah was a true champion in everything she did.”