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Burke continues to inspire Canadian freestyle skiers ahead of X Games

01/16/2015 06:16 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT
Sarah Burke is never far from Mike Riddle's thoughts.

Approaching the three-year anniversary of her death following a halfpipe training accident, he's still inspired by the pioneering Canadian freestyle skier's memory.

"I'm always thinking about her. I have a Sarah sticker on my skis and when I'm competing I wear a wristband and a sticker on my helmet," Riddle said in a phone interview Friday. "She's always on my mind. She's a huge part of the lives of a lot of the athletes out there.

"We definitely have not forgotten about her."

Burke died on Jan. 19, 2012, nine days after a fall while practising on a halfpipe in Utah. A four-time X Games champion, she was the driving force behind the inclusion of halfpipe and slopestyle in the Olympics, sports that made their debut in Sochi last year.

"I know that if I'm ever struggling with something I definitely draw on her for inspiration and strength," said Riddle. "Her memory definitely inspires me to do the best that I can.

"I can't believe it's been three years. Her memory is living strong."

The 2015 X Games begin next week in Aspen, Colo., and Riddle — who won Olympic silver for Canada on the halfpipe last February — said this season is about building.

"There's a lot less pressure from (the national team), or sponsors and ourselves to put down a competition run over and over again that you're going to compete with at the Olympics," said the 28-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta. "If there's ever a year for us to mess around and try new things, this is it. After this year it starts ramping up year over year into the Olympics (in 2018)."

Roz Groenewoud, who also honours Burke on her equipment and finished seventh in women's halfpipe in Sochi, said she's also looking to grow in 2015.

"I spent our off-season in New Zealand working on a lot new tricks, but they haven't really come together for me quite yet," said the 25-year-old from Calgary. "I'm still putting the pieces together and putting the time in."

Riddle will make his ninth appearance at the X Games, while Groenewoud is set to make her eighth trip, having won the halfpipe title in 2012 just weeks after Burke's death.

Both said that even though the Olympics might be a bigger stage, the X Games remain a premier event for athletes in their discipline.

"Someone put it a really good way: 'X Games is the biggest event in action sport. The Olympics is the biggest event in sports,'" said Riddle, whose best finish at X Games is fourth. "It's a different demographic, but for us the X Games is still a huge event and it always will be."

Groenewoud said time will tell where the Olympics fall in terms of prestige, but added the X Games' place is more than secure.

"The Olympics is so new for us it's hard to tell where it's going to fit into the culture and the tradition," she said. "But I think the X Games will remain extremely important regardless of how the Olympics begin to be viewed."

Riddle and Groenewoud also touched on their disappointment that this year's FIS freestyle skiing world championships in Austria conflict with the X Games, meaning that the top halfpipe skiers had to choose between the events.

"For the athletes that are invited to X Games, that's where they're going, which really sucks because the world championships would be our second biggest event of the year had it not been scheduled at the same time," said Riddle, who swept halfpipe gold with Groenewoud at the 2011 worlds. "It's going to devalue world championships."

Added Groenewoud: "It is really unfortunate. World championships still are a big event ... having that title on my resume has impacted my life positively.

"It's something that's important, especially to the mainstream, non-ski community. It's something that everyone understands because every sport has a world championship."

Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

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