Here's what I have learned about Sarah Burke. She was a pioneer. She did things on skis that made the birds take notice. Sarah Burke was a crusader. For years she fought to get women's halfpipe recognized as a sport. She was a dreamer too. Her mom, Jan Phelan, told me that even as a little kid she wanted to ski in the Olympics.
Jan still lives and makes art only a few blocks away from her daughter's house in Squamish, B.C. A few weeks before the Sochi Olympics I went to meet her to talk about her daughter's legacy. She told me about how when Sarah took up halfpipe as a teenager, as the only woman in the sport, she competed against men.
“So she said , 'Okay, I will compete against the senior men.' And so she came fourth, and landed the first 1080 in a competition. And so of all of these men, many of whom were on the world cup circuit, Sarah, this little kid came fourth. Isn't that something?"
That's how Sarah Burke first put women's halfpipe on the map. But she didn't stop there. Jan remembers proofreading the emails Sarah wrote when she was 14 to the X Games asking them why women couldn't compete. At events Sarah tracked down officials and demanded women be given a chance. For years she was turned down.
“She would be crying in her goggles and venting her frustration and then she would say, 'Okay, I am going to go back and talk to them again.' I could just imagine the tears filling up her goggles because she was so mad. And she had worked so hard at it.”
'Some super sad times'
I met Sarah's husband, Rory Bushfield, on his driveway. And in a matter of moments he had conviced me to put his bike in our little CBC rental car and shuttle him up a mountain so he could go for a ride. We obliged.
“It's been two years since Sarah passed and I have gone through some super sad times but everything about Sarah is easy to smile about. She did it with grace, and she did it with class, pushed herself in the right places, skied half pipe like a champion, did so many first tricks for women that had never been done, you know, continued to push and continued to push.”
Finally, in 2005, Sarah broke through. Her work paid off. Women's halfpipe got a spot in the world championships. Sarah won gold, and in her post-run interview she kept on pushing: “I am keeping my fingers crossed for the Olympics, we are only get better and I am hoping to get it in there.”
But Sarah would never make it to the Olympics. On Jan. 19, 2012, Sarah Burke died after a crash while training in Utah. But in a way she won her fight. She got her sport into the Olympics. And so in Sochi, when the women drop into the halfpipe for the first time, Sarah's dream will have come true.
Canadian slopestyle Spencer O'Brien was a close friend of Burke's, and after her qualifying runs she showed me the little tape banner that still hangs on her board two years after Sarah died.
Jan Phelan is making the long trip from Squamish to Sochi. She wants to stand near the halfpipe as the women compete and witness her daughter's legacy.
“If you had asked me, before this happened, what was the worst thing in my life would be, it would be to lose a child. To lose Sarah. I now know that there is one thing worse and that is to never have had her at all. Right. So what that tells me is to look at all these wonderful things she did accomplish and to enjoy them, let them bring you happiness.”