It was sunny, the sky mostly blue, and warm – upwards of 20 C. July 4, last summer, not a day you expect to go skiing.
But on the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb Mountain at Whistler, July 4 was a perfect day to ski.
Among all those with big smiles on the snow in the sun was Sarah Burke, the pioneer of women’s freestyle skiing, four-time winner of gold in the halfpipe at X Games. Burke was on the Horstman, as had been her practice in recent years, not as competitor but as coach, mentor and big sister to hopeful teenagers.
“What do you feel like doing today?” Burke asked her troupe of teenage girls, standing atop a 22-foot superpipe, much like the one in Utah where Burke fell on Jan. 10.
“Pipe,” one girl voted.
“Halfpipe,” another agreed, “and airbag,” adding a vote for the training ground for new tricks where the landing is softer than hard snow.
Burke then reminded the teens of some important basics, standing strong on skis forward in the knees, a good bend in the knees to exert edge control on the skis, arms out front.
And then they were off, into the pipe, the girls dreaming of pulling tricks like one of their heroes. Among Burke’s many accomplishments was the first 1080 – three 360-degree rotations – landed by a woman in competition.
The Horstman Glacier, for several decades, has hosted summer camps for skiers and snowboards, something of an Olympics incubator. When Sarah first attended at 14, it was not with Olympics dreams. Herfriends were going but she ended up on a different week. “I came alone, very scared and very shy,” she told me in an interview in the early afternoon, the snow soupy, the day of training over.
She was a moguls skier, from Midland, Ont., skied at the nearby Horseshoe Valley Ski Club. She made numerous trips to the summer camps out west and, at 17, she showed some of the spunk that eventually made her a pioneer in her sport. Burke eschewed the bumps to sneak over to the halfpipe, a place then not especially welcoming towomen, never mind girls. But she was good- and caught the eye of Mike Douglas, a Whistler freeski legend.
Her singular career ascended from there, not only winning competitions but fighting, lobbying, cajoling organizers to take women’s halfpipe skiing seriously and include it at events.
She loved coming back to the Horstman to teach teenagers. Burke had an easy, warm smile, a glow.
“It’s always good to come here and remember why,” Burke told me. “The kids are so excited when they do their first 360.”
Summer days skiing on a glacier are festive.
“It’s so much fun, the atmosphere, the vibe for the kids,” Burke said. Channeling her memory of her summers as a camper: “All the best skiers are in one spot, and you get to ski with them. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
As camp was ending, word had gone around that the International Olympic Committee finally decided to add slopestyle, skiing and snowboarding, to the 2014 games in Russia. Burke’s sport, women’s ski halfpipe, had been given the nod in April, the culmination of her efforts to push the sport.
The Sochi Olympics – she would have been 31- were Burke’s main focus if, she said, “everything goes according to plan.”
Burke’s death cuts a deep scar, from the stretch of Pemberton-Whistler-Squamish-Vancouver in British Columbia, through a whole sport, and through all of Canada. Many Canadians have been affected by her widely reported/broadcast crash, hospital stay and death, and there has been an international outpouring of support online.