January 26, 2013

For a brief moment, freestyle skier Sammy Carlson thought he caught a glimpse of her in the Winter X Games crowd.

There, standing near the halfpipe she typically dominated, was someone who looked just like the late Sarah Burke. His heart raced - and then quickly sank.

Carlson misses her. They all miss her.

It's been just over a year since the Canadian freestyle icon's death on Jan. 19, 2012, following a training accident nine days earlier on a halfpipe in Utah. Burke's friends still half expect her name to be called at this event and for her to drop in for another amazing run.

After all, this used to be her stage and her time to shine.

Last year at Winter X, her friends skied down a darkened halfpipe with glow sticks above their heads as a tribute to her.

Now, Burke's action-sports family honors her by holding nothing back on the hill and, above all else, living each day to the fullest.

That was the essence of Burke, a pioneer whose passion helped slopestyle and halfpipe skiing become Olympic sports in Sochi next winter.

"Real legends never die," said Carlson, his eyes staring toward the top of the halfpipe. "Her spirit will live on forever."

These days, the itinerary for Rory Bushfield is as simple as this: Do whatever he feels like doing. That's one of the lessons he learned from his late wife.

In the mood to fly his plane? Hop on board.

Feel like hanging out with friends? Call them up.

Want to squeeze in some skiing? Difficult, but hit the slopes, because Bushfield can't imagine giving up skiing - a fondness he and Burke shared.

This is a difficult time of year for Bushfield, because Burke was such a rock star at Winter X, winning four titles in the pipe. At the same time, it's uplifting because he sees the effect Burke had on all the athletes, not just skiers.

"There are so many awesome people at X-Games, and it's incredible how much closer they all are because of Sarah," Bushfield said in an email. "It feels really good to know that because of her, the action sports community is tighter than ever before.

"I want Sarah's legacy to be about inspiration and love; about more people getting outside, challenging themselves, and being kind to others - like Sarah."

The one thing he doesn't want is for competitors to hold back because of her accident.

"The sport has risks, just like every sport in the world does," Bushfield said. "But the industry is doing a great job of keeping things safe."

At Winter X, officials constantly seek out feedback on the condition of the halfpipe from the competitors. If there are bumps in the middle of the run, it's smoothed out. If there's too much invert on the third hit, the problem is fixed.

"That way, when they go up the wall, they know precisely what they're going to have in store for them," said Chris Stiepock, the vice president of X Games events. "So all they need to do is concentrate on the tricks they've learned."

Those tricks, though, are progressing at a rapid rate. More air and more speed just may mean more danger.

Only, the athletes don't see it that way. The sport simply comes with risks.

"We get it and we're passionate about it," snowboarder Kelly Clark said. "We know that it requires risk to do what we do and to do it well."

But that doesn't mean they're reckless.

No, these flips and spins are tried out on a trampoline, into a foam pit and then attempted into an air bag set up at the end of the pipe long before they're attempted in a competition.

Careful as they may be, accidents still happen.

"We've had some terrible catastrophes in our sport. It's horrible and it does make you take a step back," snowboarder Elena Hight said. "But you can get hurt walking across the street. You have to assess your own risk and what you're willing to risk and how much gratification it gives you as a person."

Clark couldn't agree more.

"Sarah Burke's career is a testimony to that," Clark said. "The best thing we, as athletes, can do is to continue to lead our sport. Sarah is an inspiration to me - to be able to go out and have such an impact and do so much for a sport."

Burke certainly had an impact on freeskiing. She was a driving force behind the International Olympic Committee's decision to bring slopestyle, along with Burke's specialty, halfpipe skiing, into the Sochi Games.

She would've been the favorite, too.

Burke, who was born in Ontario and lived in Squamish, British Columbia, was training in Park City, Utah, when she fell in the halfpipe. The 29-year-old sustained irreversible brain damage when one of the arteries supplying her brain ruptured.

This was the same halfpipe where snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a severe brain injury that ended his career. Pearce has recovered and is serving as an analyst at Winter X.

"That was pretty heavy to see - same place, same halfpipe," Pearce said. "It's like, `This really does happen."'

Not just in the halfpipe, either. The action sports community has lost quite a few big names in recent years:

- Professional freeskier C.R. Johnson, who died in February 2010 after hitting his head on a rock outcropping while taking a run down a steep chute at California's Squaw Valley.

- Acclaimed freeskier Arne Backstrom, who died from a high-altitude fall in Peru in June 2010.

- Nik Zoricic, a Canadian skicross racer who died two months after Burke when he suffered head injuries following a crash into the nets during a World Cup skicross event in Switzerland.

- Extreme skier Shane McConkey, who was killed jumping off a cliff with a parachute while filming a movie in Italy nearly four years ago.

"Skiing has had a rough go the last three or four years," said freeskier Tanner Hall, who returned to Winter X for the first time since shattering both legs in a wipeout while shooting scenes for a movie in 2009. "We have to remember all of our fallen friends. ... celebrate their lives."

Burke's influence on her sport won't soon be forgotten.

Bushfield won't let it. He recently helped start the Sarah Burke Foundation, which will raise money to provide scholarships to athletes and donate to organizations Burke supported.

Next winter, he plans on being in Sochi to watch the skiing events his wife played a role in getting into the Olympics.

"It's going to be awesome watching her dream become a reality," Bushfield said.

Notes: David Wise led an American podium sweep in men's ski superpipe Friday night. Maddie Bowman captured the women's event. ... Halldor Helgason suffered a concussion when he over-rotated on a flip in the snowboard big air competition. He was taken off the hill on a sled and transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. Torstein Horgmo won the event, narrowly edging defending champion Mark McMorris with a perfect final run.

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