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Freestyle skier Sarah Burke dies at 29 from injuries following crash

01/19/2012 09:57 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT
Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was an Olympic gold-medal hopeful, a groundbreaker in her sport and a wife looking forward to a bright future when she died from injuries sustained in a fall.

The 29-year-old's passing Thursday brought a flood of tributes and grief from the Canadian sports community.

"To have her taken in the prime of her life and the prime of her career is just a tragedy and a loss for freestyle, a loss for Canada, a loss for society really," said freestyle teammate Warren Shouldice. "She was going onto great things."

Burke crashed Jan. 10 in Park City, Utah, in training while executing what was thought to be a routine trick for her in the halfpipe.

The four-time Winter X Games champion tore one of the major arteries supplying blood to her brain and went into cardiac arrest. She underwent surgery and spent nine days on life support at the University of Utah Hospital.

But Burke had suffered irreversible brain damage after the fall because of lack of oxygen and blood to the brain, according to her publicist.

A favourite to win another X-Games title later this month in Aspen, Colo., Burke lobbied hard during her career to get event organizers to accept that females could also perform big air tricks on the superpipe, which is a super-sized version of the halfpipe.

In a www.skichannel.com documentary "Winter", Burke described what it was like trying to win that acceptance.

"I was going to contests and talking to the organizers trying to get in, trying to compete against the boys and sometimes it would work out . . . and sometimes I would just forerun before the boys," she said. "It was a lot of sad calls to my parents, not understanding why I could beat half those boys, but they wouldn't let me in the contest.

"I remember sending e-mails to the X-Games 'do you guys have girls yet?' I kept pushing with ESPN and X-Games 'let us in, let us in, let us in' and they finally did."

She pursued the inclusion of her sport in major events with sunny determination, according to Canadian Freestyle Ski Association CEO Peter Judge.

"As a face and a spokesperson for the sport, she was always very articulate, she was always very intelligent in terms of what she presented the sport to be and what she presented the ambitions to be," Judge explained. "At the times it wasn't in, she wasn't bitter or twisted. She continued to represent her sport in a very valiant way.

"Many times along the way she could have looked at it as being a victim in the sport. She always took the positive perspective and always took that 'why not?' attitude and tried to move things forward."

The IOC announced in April, 2011, that the freestyle ski discipline of halfpipe would be a medal sport at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

"My dream is always to win the Olympics. That's what I wanted to do," Burke said.

After winning a world championship in 2005 and taking the X-Games titles in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011, Burke was considered a frontrunner for the first Olympic gold medal handed out in the sport.

"Sarah was a true inspiration to all who had the privilege to know her, especially to the new generation of athletes in this country as she helped define the superpipe discipline in the sport of freestyle skiing," Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said in a statement. "Her fans from Canada and around the world looked up to her and all she has accomplished as a true leader. This true champion will be missed but never forgotten."

Both Twitter and Facebook were alive Thursday with tributes to Burke from Canadian athletes across all sports, from hurdler Perdita Felicien to luger Sam Edney to hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser.

A moment of silence for Burke was observed before Canada's women's soccer team played Haiti in an Olympic qualifying match in Vancouver on Thursday night.

"Very determined and motivated, but the kindest, caring, outgoing, beautiful person you've ever met," said Shouldice, who competes in aerials.

"All the good things you hear about her are probably understatements. She was probably the person behind getting halfpipe included in the Olympics. She fought for it, she lobbied for it. She would have been a gold-medal favourite going into Sochi."

Burke was born in Barrie, Ont., and grew up in nearby Midland. As a teenager, she started attending summer ski camps in Whistler, B.C., in 1997.

Burke quickly impressed John Smart, who ran the camps and was also a World Cup moguls skier at the time.

"She was fearless. She's incredibly strong," Smart recalled. "She must have been 15 or 16 and she was already throwing 1080s, triple revolutions in the air. I was on the World Cup at the time and I wasn't even doing that.

"She was just a surprise to the eye. Who is this young, little, blond girl you would assume would not be anything like she was in terms of her power and drive and the way she threw herself into the air and took these chances?"

It was at one of those Blackcomb Mountain camps where Burke met her future husband, Rory Bushfield, a fellow skier from Alberta whom she married in 2010. The couple became coaches at the same camps while Burke pursued her skiing career.

Smart says Burke was a mentor for hundreds of children, particularly girls, during her 11 years of coaching at his camps.

"She coached from the day she became a superstar," Smart said.

"She's a shining light, an incredible fun, positive person who people were drawn to. Not only that, she was unbelievably modest in all of her wins and successes. People were kind of confused, she was so down to earth. That's what made her such a great coach and a great people person."

In "Winter" Burke and Bushfield describe how their love of the mountain brought them together and forged their relationship. The documentary features the couple on their wedding day.

"I was at their wedding and it was just beautiful," Smart said. "She lived a great life. She had a very exciting life and of course, she met the perfect person, Rory.

"When you find people like this, you lock onto them. They're just better for everyone. The people she's touched will never forget that part about her. A piece of her is going to live in thousands of people that she touched."

Burke is survived by her husband Rory, parents Jan and Gordon and sister Anna. Her family donated her organs and tissues in accordance with her wishes, according to a statement from the CFSA.

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