ASPEN, Colo. - Their calendars say it's time for the Winter X Games. Their hearts tell them it might be too soon.
Less than a week after the death of their friend, Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, the skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers reconvened in Aspen on Wednesday to get ready for the start of what is typically one of America's most rowdy, raucous celebrations of sports.
If the lead-in to opening day was any indication, it will be a more muted affair this year.
"The last thing I really wanted to do was come here," said Mike Douglas, considered the "Godfather" of freeskiing, who discovered Burke when she was a teenager. "But being here is somewhat comforting and therapeutic because this group is something of a family. So many people here knew her and loved her. It almost forces you to go through that feeling process a little faster and deal with it."
Burke died last Thursday, nine days after an accident in which she landed awkwardly while doing a trick on a superpipe in Park City, Utah.
Instead of hyping new tricks, the athletes used the day before the competition to talk about their friend, the risks inherent in their sport and why they're here, even while they're still in mourning.
Summing it up, early in the day, was a tweet from Canada's freestyle coach, Trennon Paynter, who sent out a picture from the top of the superpipe with a sticker that reads, "Celebrate Sarah" — a tribute reminiscent of the "I ride 4 Kevin" stickers that snowboarder Kevin Pearce's fans plastered across their boards when he was hurt badly two winters ago.
Wrote Paynter: "Sun is shining on the XGames pipe for the first training session. She is right here with us."
Burke was born in Barrie, Ont., and grew up in nearby Midland. She began attending summer ski camps in Whistler, B.C., as a teenager.
Burke, who was 29 when she died, pushed her discipline of superpipe skiing into the Olympics and would have been going for her fifth Winter X gold medal this week.
Douglas remembers her walking into his ski camp in Whistler, "a cute little thing with a smile and some talent." Over the years, he helped her develop that talent and make a name for herself in a sport that was barely getting started when she arrived.
"She got what this was all about," Douglas said. "She was the type of person who does it to be among this community. She would coach her competition to get better. For her, when the sport did well, that was a win."
More than a decade ago, these X Games that Burke first defined, then dominated, were created with the goal of offering a look at what the so-called counterculture did for fun.
That endeavour made for some great TV, furthered a multimillion-dollar industry and turned out a few stars — Shaun White, Kelly Clark and Burke among them. But along the way, those skiers and riders learned that what they do can be every bit as dangerous as the so-called mainstream sports — football, auto racing — they sometimes smirked at.
"It's such a tragedy, but at the same time, I'm not going to be ruled by fear and what-ifs," said Clark, a two-time Olympic snowboarding medallist who last year became the first woman to land a 1080 in competition. "We can prepare as much as we can, train as safe as we can and press forward and I think that's what Sarah represented, who she was as a person. We can, in a way, honour her by doing that."
On Thursday night during the snowmobile freestyle final, the X Games will offer their official tribute to Burke. But really, the next two years will be an ongoing reminder of her life and her contribution.
She took women's freeskiing on her back, helped get it onto the X Games program, then lobbied successfully to have it added to the Olympic program starting in 2014. Anyone who's made a buck — or a friend — or maybe dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal while skiing in a superpipe has Burke to thank for pushing the cause.
"There's a part of a little of everyone that doesn't want to do it, doesn't want to be here" this week, said Gretchen Bleiler, the 2006 snowboarding silver medallist . "But I think of it this way: There couldn't be a better place and time to come together right now to celebrate her and the amazing life she had."
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