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Celebrating Sarah Burke

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A female pioneer of halfpipe skiing

By Gabby Cleveland

Halfpipe skiing world champion – Sarah Burke – had spent years fighting for her sport to be included in the Winter Olympic Games.

Now, thanks to her work, men’s and women’s ski halfpipe will be featured for the third time at the 2022 Winter Olympics. However, it is bittersweet because the former champion and freestyle skiing icon is no longer here to compete in the event she fought so hard for.

“She did just about everything for women in the sport,” said Amy Fraser, Canada Cup halfpipe champion.

Back in 2011, men’s and women’s ski halfpipe had finally been added to the list of events included in the 2014 Olympic program. Burke was ecstatic and decided she would dedicate the next three years leading up to the Olympics, to getting her body prepared and improving her techniques.

In 2012, Burke attended a training camp in Park City, Utah. The city has two of the best ski hills in the United States and hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002. Burke, who is from Barrie Ont., set out to the renowned ski destination to practice on a halfpipe she had skied many times before and to perform a flat spin 540, a trick she had perfected in her teens. She stood at the top of the glistening 22-foot halfpipe ready to execute the trick, which is an off-axis 540 degree rotation that is thrown over the shoulder and landed with the skier’s back facing forwards.

She launched herself off the halfpipe, over-rotated, and whiplashed forward.

Burke had torn her vertebral artery, an artery that supplies blood to the brainstem and cerebellum. According to ESPN, “the odds of this exact accident seemed like one in a million.”

Burke died nine days later.

“She is still such an inspiration,” said Fraser. “We reap the benefits of the hard work she put into this sport on a daily basis.”

After her death, countless athletes and fans decorated the sides of their ski helmets with “Celebrate Sarah” stickers.

Grete Eliassen, an X Games ski halfpipe champion, host of the “What’s Your Line?” podcast and dear friend to Burke, said that losing Burke was “like losing a sister.”

“That’s what made it so tough, because she felt like an older sister to me,” said Eliassen. “It was so amazing when she was here. I learned so much.”

Eliassen sat back and reflected on her time spent with Burke. She grew up in Norway, watching ski movies that mostly put a spotlight on male athletes, however, Burke’s fearlessness in the backcountry often made her a star in the movies. Eliassen said she looked up to Burke because she knew she had the skills to join the small group of female freestyle skiers and perform the same tricks as Burke was perfecting. She remembered feeling starstruck the first time she was introduced to Burke at Momentum Ski Camps and later bringing her to get spray tans and to get their makeup done together before prestigious award shows.

Burke is a role model to many retired and current freestyle skiers because she was a female pioneer of a sport that Eliassen said is dominated by men.

“Just the pure fact that she competed with the guys I think is one of the biggest flexes ever,” said Fraser.

Eliassen, who is sponsored by Armada Skis, said there were and still are, many more men getting sponsors and “winning the big bucks.”

“Sarah and I were both a big part of the Women’s Sports Foundation,” said Eliassen.

Through this nonprofit, charity organization that is dedicated to focusing on the involvement of women in sports, the two brought in more “heavyweight advocacy work showing how this inequality in both winter and summer sports is really not right,” said Eliassen.

Burke’s sister, Anna Phelan, recalls being at competitions and witnessing Burke fight for equal perks and equal runs for men and women. She was denied over and over again.

“She would still smile for the cameras at the end of each run, but I could see the tears of frustration filling up her goggles,” said Phelan.

When Burke’s halfpipe skiing career began, she was the only woman competing in the sport. She would go to Big Air competitions, an event featuring an approximately 80-foot jump, and ask to participate. She was told she was allowed to perform – however, there was no category for women.

Burke would partake in these events that had no official category for her and she would not be eligible to win any prize money.

This lit a flame under Burke. Rory Bushfield, Burke’s husband, said she always knew she deserved a category and she knew she could perform just as well, if not better than the men.

“Sarah would follow behind me on the halfpipe and sometimes throw bigger tricks than me,” said Bushfield.

She was the first woman on skis to land a 720, a 900 and a 1080 in competition.

According to her former coach, Trennon Paynter, doing tricks in the air that terrified most people, brought her peace.

“It is a very niche sport,” said Fraser. “Not only is it terrifying which I think deters a lot of people, but it’s also a very high risk sport so lots of girls get injured.”

Despite the risks and injuries, Burke persisted and recruited any girl she thought seemed interested in freestyle skiing.

Eliassen was one of the girls who decided to pursue a freestyle skiing career because of Burke’s influence.

“I remember her messaging me and being like, ‘Grete I didn’t see you at so-and-so competition, where were you?’,” said Eliassen.

Even though Eliassen could have been one of her biggest competitions, Eliassen explained Burke still encouraged her to compete.

“She trained her competition because she needed girls to compete against,” said Phelan.

Her sister attributed this to Burke’s belief that “a win for one was a win for all.” Through hosting and coaching at “Girls Week”, held at Momentum Ski Camps, she taught girls to be fearless and exude confidence on skis.

“She identified that there were barriers and insecurities that girls faced,” said Bushfeild. “She created a space at these camps where only girls were allowed and they would just stoke each other out.”

Burke, Eliassen and four other female freestyle skiers were eventually invited to demonstrate at competitions – but they were still not eligible for any prizes.

In 2005, everything changed for the group of women who were fighting for their inclusion in halfpipe skiing. This was the year that women could compete for prizes and earnings at halfpipe skiing events held at the Winter X Games. From there, the freestyle skiing community grew.

Eliassen, then 18, won gold at the 2005 Winter X Games. Her prize money was $2,000 – a paltry sum compared to the $30,000 pay cheque Shaun White received for winning the 2008 Winter X Games.

Burke, Eliassen and the other women who competed in 2005 then decided to fight for equal pay.

Through their hard work, and the perseverance of other female athletes, 2008 was the first year X Games offered equal purses for all contestants.

When Bushfield was asked to describe a memory about his wife that stands out to him, he spoke about the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “Of course she sent letters, she lobbied and she competed in events that were incredibly inconvenient for her where she could have been making way more money somewhere else,” said Bushfield. “But what stood out to me the most was her dedication towards the sport.”

The Olympic committee decided in 2010 to decline Burke’s persistence and not include ski halfpipe in the Olympics, which Bushfeild described as “kind of a jab” because Burke had pushed hard for the sport’s inclusion that year.

“There was snow everywhere and even though it was cool the Olympics were in Vancouver, I left for a skiing trip in Switzerland,” said Bushfeild. “On the other hand, Sarah stayed in Vancouver, supported the Olympics, went to every event and stood there at the bottom of the snowboard halfpipe cheering the athletes on.”

Instead of acting out of spite, she showed support towards the Olympics, sports and all of the athletes.

Throughout her life, Burke continued to push for her sport. Bushfield said if she were here today, she would still be doing exactly that.

“Burke fought for equality and proved to the world that women deserve a place on the halfpipe,” said the Sarah Burke Foundation. “Every woman in freestyle skiing owes something to Sarah.”

Anna Phelan
Rory Bushfield
Amy Fraser
Grete Eliassen

Gabby Cleveland is a journalism major at Ryerson University. She’s from Calgary, AB and has a passion for skiing, being outside, encouraging girls to participate in sports and most prominently, a deep love for writing. She has looked up to Sarah since her high school years and felt encouraged to fight for what she loves. Sarah “Taught me how to be a badass.” 

 “I do this because I love to learn and share inspiring stories. Writing this story about Sarah, and interviewing Rory and Anna was a childhood dream come true. Sarah’s story is something that should forever be heard around the world.”