ASPEN, Colo. – Holding white glow sticks above their heads, Sarah Burke’s friends took a slow trip down a darkened halfpipe at the Winter X Games on Thursday — bidding a sad farewell to the Canadian skier who helped push their sports to the heights they’ve reached today.
With light snow falling on them at the bottom, those friends embraced Burke’s parents and her husband — all still mourning a week after the 29-year-old freestyle icon’s death following a training accident on a halfpipe in Utah.
It was a touching moment in front of a normally raucous X Games crowd that fell silent while watching the tribute. It opened with a video remembrance of Burke, the four-time champion in skiing superpipe who used to save her best work for the fans in Aspen.
“Everything she believed in is on this mountain tonight,” Winter X emcee Sal Masekela told the crowd. “Competition, excellence, progression.”
Burke was the first woman to land a 720, then a 900, then a 1080-degree spin in competition. But the summary of Burke’s life, Masekela said, will never be found in any stat sheet or record book.
“She was a superstar with the humility of a rookie,” Masekela said.
Shortly after the tribute, with the competition moving on, Burke’s name was briefly the second-hottest trending topic on Twitter — one small indication of what she meant to the action-sports world she helped shape. Meanwhile, all around Aspen, the new sticker that reads “Celebrate Sarah” was becoming an increasingly popular item.
Earlier in the day, another Canadian, Montreal’s Kaya Turski, won her third straight gold medal in skier slopestyle and immediately paid tribute to her friend.
“It means everything to me,” Turski said. “This goes out to Sarah. Before every run, I said to myself, ‘Let’s do this, Sarah.’ She was there for me and she led me all the way.”
Even though it wasn’t her best event, it was Burke’s prodding that played a big role in bringing women’s slopestyle to the X Games program in 2009. She had a similar impact on the International Olympic Committee, which voted to bring that sport, along with Burke’s specialty, superpipe skiing, into the games beginning in 2014.
“I would say every female athlete today had a sticker or an arm band or something that said ‘Sarah’ or ‘We believe in Sarah,’ said Kelley Korbin, a spokesperson with the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. “She was right there with all these girls today.”
Her impact on freeskiing certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon, and yet, it was her own words, played to the crowd during the video tribute, that may have defined her best.
“I just ski because I really like it,” she said in an interview from a few years back. “I’m not going out there to win the most money or make a big difference. I do it because I love it.”