Although she had been in a coma for nine days after a fall in training, the death of 29-year-old daredevil Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke on Thursday sent shock waves not only through the global skiing community but among extreme sportsmen and women of every kind. Burke, a role model to women skiers and to the youngsters she trained, was considered one of the world's best female freestyle skiers and was favourite for superpipe gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
She, more than anyone else, was the driving force behind getting superpipe skiing – featuring jumps, twists, turns and multiple body revolutions on skateboard-style ramps carved out of snow – accepted as an Olympic sport for 2014. It was, she said, "the fulfilment of a lifelong dream" and she had made the Sochi Games the focus of her training until then.
Adding to the shock of her death was the fact that Burke was a gregarious, blue-eyed blonde beauty with a radiant smile which brought her into much demand as a model for sports clothing and other fashion. Photographed in lingerie for the men's magazine FHM, she was voted by its readers one of the 100 sexiest women in the world in 2006.
She was practising on 10 January for a more immediate event, the Winter X Games which start in Aspen, Colorado, next week, when she landed badly after performing what pipe skiers call a Flat Spin 540 – a 540-degree rotation of the body off the top of the vertical peak of a 22ft-high snow wall at Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah.
Although the fall did not look too bad at the time she ruptured a vertebral artery, went into cardiac arrest and lost oxygen to the brain. She was flown to hospital in Salt Lake City, where doctors put her into therapeutic hypothermia to cool the body and brain, but she never regained consciousness. According to a friend of the family yesterday, "according to Sarah's wishes, her organs and tissues were donated to save the lives of others."
She was the defending women's superpipe champion at the Winter X Games, winning gold for the fifth time last year. She was also the first woman to complete a 1,080-degree rotation (three full body twists) in competition.
Sarah Burke was born in Barrie, Ontario in 1982, but raised in a smaller Ontarian town, Midland, where she started skiing while still at school and got her first sponsor when she was racing down moguls at the age of 17. "I was often the only girl at the comps and competed against the boys for the first few years," she said. "Before I knew it I was travelling and competing all over the world. I've taken countless crashes and broken many bones but I love skiing ... and plan to do it as long as I'm enjoying it."
She became one of the first – men or women – to introduce skis into "the pipe," which had developed out of pipe skateboarding and become more famous for its snowboarders. Impressed by how pipe snowboarding had turned people like the American Shaun White from the fringes into the mainstream as extreme sports superstars, she began her campaign to get superpipe skiing into the Olympics. She pointed out that it would require no new infrastructure since the pipe would already be in place for the snowboarding events. The International Olympic Committee finally agreed last year.
Burke married her fellow Canadian freestyle skier Rory Bushfield, from Alberta, in September 2010.
"She was the first woman to try to compete in this sport and did so against the guys," according to her friend, the American freestyle skier Jen Hudak. "Sarah was certainly a pioneer and a large part of why our sport is now in the Olympic Games."
In 2009, Burke broke a vertebra after landing awkwardly while competing at the Winter X Games but she was back to the highest level, and to podiums, within a year. "I plan to stick around for the 2014 Olympics so don't be thinkin' I am going anywhere!" she wrote on her website recently. "I am really looking forward [to] skiing pow [powder] with my friends and pushing my boundaries. I would never have imagined that a girl from little ol' Midland, Ontario, would be where I am today. So always dream big ... you can make it happen."
Sarah Burke, freestyle skier: born Barrie, Ontario 3 September 1982; married 2010 Rory Bushfield; died Salt Lake City, Utah 19 January 2012.