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This story appears in the June 11 Women in Sports issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
SHE WAS ALWAYS the person who brought everyone else together -- the magnet, friends called her -- so they traveled from across the world to see Sarah Burke one final time. High school classmates came from the East Coast, and family members flew in from Canada. Professional athletes traveled from Norway, Sweden and Japan. They arrived en masse at a hospital in Park City, Utah, spilling from Burke'sroom into the general waiting area and the hallways until, finally, doctors found a conference room big enough to accommodate them.
For nine terrible days in January, they sat there, waited and prayed. They rehashed questions that made no sense.
How could they remain hopeful when the most optimistic among them was lying unresponsive in the other room?
How had skiing's most daring athlete suffered a brain hemorrhage while practicing an utterly routine trick?
Why now, just months after she had engineered her sport's inclusion in the 2014 Winter Olympics and had become, at long last, a gold medal favorite?
Mostly, they spent the long hours in the conference room trying to reconcile the Sarah Burke on life support with the one they had known for 29 years, the one who had lived in perpetual motion and supported everyone else. This was a woman who had visited the troops in Iraq, hit a 75-foot ski jump in the Canadian backcountry, posed for a magazine cover and designed a jacket for a sponsor in Europe -- all during the course of one typical month. This was the first woman to land a 720, a 900 and a 1080 in competition. This was a skier who had won four gold medals at the X Games; a friend who dropped everything to make a Jay-Z concert in London; a businesswoman who signed deals with nearly a dozen companies; and a prankster who launched a website, Scarah.com, to post videos of herself jumping out from behind doors to surprise other skiers.
"She did everything to the fullest all the time," says her husband, Rory Bushfield. "The joke was always that there had to be, like, four or five Sarahs."
And now there was this one, in the hospital. Hemorrhaging prevented oxygen and blood from reaching her brain, resulting in a coma. Doctors tried emergency surgery to no avail. Tests showed that her heart was still beating, but her brain was damaged beyond repair. She was gone.
As Burke's family members prepared to say their final goodbyes, the hospital staff came with more bad news. Burke was a Canadian citizen who had been skiing in the U.S. without health insurance because her national ski team policy covered her only during competitions and some practices. Her hospital bills would total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nobody in her
Burke, who wanted her organs to be donated, had always been a giver herself. She had started at least one tradition that had spread among her friends. At the end of the night, she liked to ask a bartender to change a few $20 bills into quarters and dimes. Then she would walk home tossing the change along her path, building a trail of coins that stretched for a mile or more. She believed that joy and generosity could be contagious. "Think of how happy it will make people to find these in the morning!" she sometimes said.
Maybe now some of those coins would circle back, Spencer thought. On Jan. 19, a few hours before Burke died, he hit a button on his laptop to make the fundraising site public. He hoped that a few hundred people would post tributes. He wanted to raise $15,000.
"I had no idea what could happen or who might see it," he says, because nothing in his life had prepared him for what would come next.
SHE STARTED SKIING just after she turned 5, the daughter of two artists in Midland, Ontario, who saved their money for weekend lift tickets. She
She arrived in Quebec City, 10 hours from her home, only to find out that no other junior girls had signed up to compete. There were also no registered women and no junior boys. Officials encouraged her to drive back to Midland, but instead, Burke decided to compete against 23 men -- most of them already professionals, some at least twice her age, and a few couldn't help but chuckle at the teenage girl with a toothy smile, blond pigtails and old lift tickets stuck to the zippers of her bulky jacket.
She finished fourth.
For the next several years, Burke divided her time between building her skills and building up the competition. She graduated from high school and moved into a group house in Mammoth, Calif., where she kept the water bill affordable by showering only a few times each week, saving her money to travel to freestyle competitions around the world. Other women were stronger or more athletic, but nobody else had her body control and sense of ease in the air. "Most people get scared up there, but she was totally at peace," says her coach, Trennon Paynter.
Burke won most events she entered. Her audacity in the backcountry made her a cult star in ski movies; her flirtatious smile and beach-blond hair led FHM to name her to its list of the 100 sexiest women. She signed contracts with Salomon, Smith, Roxy, Monster and Helly Hansen, and soon the water bill didn't seem to matter.
Meanwhile, as she emerged as one of skiing's few mainstream stars, she scoured ski chat rooms on the Internet and randomly messaged any girl who
Burke helped start a movement to force the Dew Tour to include women's skiing, and she begged her sponsors to kick in for equal prize money when one contest paid $20,000 to men's winners and $2,000 to women's. She traveled to the X Games four times to perform an exhibition while the men warmed up, because the event didn't yet offer a competition for women. "It was a constant frustration, and sometimes you could see the tears fog up her goggles," says Jessica Vander Kooij, a close friend from Midland. "But then she'd take off the goggles and be smiling, like, 'Okay. I'm fine.'"
She was always fine -- that was her brand of toughness. Mangled thumb? Fine. She'd have surgery and make it back to the hill three hours later, even if she was still vomiting from the anesthesia. Dislocated shoulder? Fine. Broken hands, busted ribs, torn-up knees, knocked unconscious? Fine. All fine. Broken back? Fine -- and, just to prove it, why not throw up a casual peace sign to the crowd at the 2009 X Games as paramedics carted her down the mountain?
Once, while filming a ski movie in the Canadian backcountry, Burke's friend Mike Douglas suggested building a different jump for women. The jump for the men was a monster, a skyscraper of snow built in avalanche country that required a flight of 90 feet to reach the landing area. Naturally, Burke wanted to try it, but the physics didn't add up; it was too much speed and air for someone who weighed 125 pounds.
"Please let me build you something a little more reasonable," Douglas said.
"No way," Burke said.
They fought for 30 minutes, but there was no winning once Burke had made up her mind. She flew off the jump at full speed, lost control in the air and barely reached the landing area. "It wasn't really a crash so much as an all-out explosion," Douglas says. Skis and boots and goggles scattered across the mountain. Five other athletes hurried downhill to check on her. Douglas dug into his pocket for a cellphone, prepared to call 911.
"I'm fine," Burke said, standing up, waving them off. Then she hiked back up the hill and hit the jump again.
SHE FOUND ADVENTURE everywhere, but mostly she found it through love. Burke met Bushfield, another professional skier, at summer camp when she was 14, and he spent the next seven years chasing her around the world. He finally persuaded her to go on an informal date in Oregon in 2003, suggesting only that she wear comfortable shoes. Off they went through the woods to the Deschutes River, crossing the rapids in the most dangerous spots, hopping from one slippery rock to the next, soaking their pants to the knee. "It was intense and awesome," Bushfield says, and it became the blueprint for their relationship: Be spontaneous. Take risks. Make every experience memorable.
Easter wasn't just an egg hunt but a scavenger course decoded by treasure
Bushfield traveled everywhere with climbing gear and a rope in his backpack, and he made it a daily mission to entertain Burke by doing backflips off bridges or jumping off buildings. They surfed together in Costa Rica, backpacked in Europe and mountain-biked in Brazil. They bought a house near the ski area in Whistler, British Columbia, remodeled it themselves and hosted ax-throwing tournaments in the backyard. Bushfield learned how to fly and bought a plane so they could buzz around the mountains and chase bears along the ridgelines.
He proposed on Christmas Eve in 2009, using a shovel to write a message in fresh powder on a remote mountain and then flying Burke there the next morning. "Marry me Sarah!" he wrote, because it never seemed like a question.
THERE WAS SO much she still wanted to do: launch a training and rehabilitation clinic, raise kids, become a broadcaster, win the Olympics. For Paynter, her coach, the challenge was always to limit her focus. "She had a hard time saying no," he says. "She did way too much."
When the International Olympic Committee announced last summer that it would add both ski halfpipe and slopestyle to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, Paynter suggested that Burke hire a scheduler to help manage her time. She had spent the past two years traveling to meetings and pushing for the sport's inclusion in Sochi, and everything about the Olympics excited her now. She liked filling out the IOC paperwork. She looked forward to the drug tests; they made her feel like a real athlete, she told friends. Still, she had always succeeded her way and trained on her own schedule, and this time would be no different.
Burke spent the winter traveling to charity events and surf trips. A week into January, she left for a three-day training camp in Park City, where Monster, her energy-drink sponsor, had rented out a 22-foot halfpipe that she had skied in dozens of times. The plan in Utah was simply to stick with what she knew. So on the afternoon of Jan. 10, she soared off the bottom of the halfpipe and twisted into a flat spin 540, one and a half sideways rotations, a standard trick she had mastered in her teens. She had landed it thousands of times. She had fallen thousands of times. It never had mattered.
This time she fell. She overrotated on the landing, whiplashed forward and banged her head. It was an unremarkable crash, and for about 10 seconds nobody else in the pipe seemed to notice. But then it had been 15 seconds, and still she didn't answer when another skier called her name, sending half a dozen athletes rushing to her side. Then it was two minutes, and emergency responders who had hurried to the scene began to notice signs of cardiac arrest. Then it was five minutes, and paramedics radioed for a helicopter.
In the chaos that followed, Bushfield received a call on his cell. He answered while sitting inside the lodge at Whistler, taking a break from his own day on the mountain. "I heard, 'It's bad news about Sarah,' and then the whole thing is just a fog," Bushfield says. He scrambled to find a flight to Utah that afternoon. When he arrived, the same husband who always had resisted
They said Burke had torn her vertebral artery, which helps supply blood to the brain stem. They said she wasn't waking up. They said the odds of this exact accident seemed like one in a million.
"A fluke," Spencer says. "A moment so bad and so unexplainable it makes you wonder if anything good can happen again."
Then, two days after Burke died, something did. Spencer checked the fundraising website he had created to help cover Burke's medical expenses and saw that more than 250 people had donated and posted tributes in the first three hours. More than 3,000 donated in the first three days. The money came from 22 countries, and the tributes were posted in Japanese, German, Italian, English and French. A ski bum explained that he was jobless and therefore could give only $10. A sushi restaurant in Canada held its own fundraiser and pitched in $1,000. Billie Jean King, Dwyane Wade and Lil Wayne all offered tributes. A flood of traffic crashed GiveForward.com, so people made donations through two other websites.
"Here was every person who knew about her suddenly giving back at once," says Jan Phelan, her mother.
"We couldn't believe how many people she'd reached," Bushfield says.
"It was almost hard to keep track," Spencer says. So less than a week after Burke's death, he navigated through the Internet and calculated the total.
His grassroots project had raised more than $300,000.
THE MONEY MORE than covered medical expenses, with her sponsors and Canadian ski team offering to pitch in, so Burke's family decided to use some of it for a memorial in April. Bushfield spent a month obsessing over the details, mostly because it gave him something to do. Ever since Burke's death, he had tried to re-create the feeling of closeness to her. He took long bike rides to mountains they had visited together, only to experience a terrible sense of loneliness once he arrived. He tried to lose himself in their adventures, like surfing in Los Angeles or street skiing in Australia, but what was the point without Burke waiting to hear his stories? "The best part of every experience was coming home and laughing about it with her," he says. Instead, now he came home to her meticulously organized clothes still hanging in the closet and her two iPhones still sitting on the dresser drawer -- vestiges he couldn't bear to see but couldn't bring himself to give away.
"It sounds weird, but it feels comforting to know those old text messages and pictures are still right there," he says. "It's like parts of her still exist."
He tried to gather those parts at the memorial in Whistler. More than 1,000 skiers, friends and fans showed up for a Burke-style event: a whirlwind three-day party that included a ceremony at a glacial lake, another in a halfpipe and a midnight dance-off at a restaurant.
On the last night, Bushfield and his family hosted a public ceremony in Whistler's downtown square. Some people arrived with stickers that read "Celebrate Sarah," and others wore replica necklaces of Burke's snowflake tattoo. A sign posted over a small stage read: "One light will not go out if it lights 1,000 more," and Bushfield walked through the crowd to distribute hundreds of candles.
The last speakers stepped off the stage at 10:15 p.m., and tradition called for a final moment of silence.
"Let's make it a moment of noise," Bushfield said.
The crowd counted to three and then shouted in unison, a cacophony of grief and rage and gratitude. A group of close friends went to Burke's favorite bar, drank her favorite champagne and danced to her favorite songs. They talked about building a foundation in Burke's name that would help support women skiers. Maybe, they agreed, joy and generosity really could be contagious.
Then, just before last call, some of them walked up to the bartender and changed $20 bills into fistfuls of coins. When the sun came up the next morning over Whistler, the cobblestone streets were dotted with silver and bronze.
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