Gretchen Bleiler shares her thoughts on Sarah Burke with espnW: Burke’s accident leaves questions in its wake
Our action sports world is again in shock. One of freestyle skiing’s top women, Sarah Burke, remains in critical condition after a fall while training in Park City a few days ago. As pro snowboarders, skiers, etc., we all know that what we do is risky. But when accidents produce results like this we’re left praying and asking ourselves questions.
Is this worth it? Why did this happen? What are we doing?
I’ve watched Sarah Burke from afar for a long time now. We’re about the same age and have been doing our thing in our respective sports for about the same amount of time. We’ve both seen friends come and then go because of various injuries, lack of sponsorship or just the wear and tear of this demanding job.
I’ve always admired and looked up to Sarah. Not only is she naturally talented in everything that she does, but what has always impressed me and stood out is her work ethic. In watching Sarah I see a woman who knows what she’s doing and knows what she wants. She’s disciplined and when it’s time to go, she goes, and it’s on.
I got to train with her and a bunch of the Canadian Freestyle Ski team last year in Park City. Every day Sarah and coach Trennon [Paynter] would be up early, as were we. But there was one particular day I won’t forget. I think it was one of Sarah’s last training days before she had to leave, and I remember it was flat light, gray bird and just hard to see — basically the conditions sucked. I remember not wanting to practice because of it.
And then I remember seeing Sarah side-drop into the pipe and throw a perfectly corked 900. Apparently Sarah had gotten to the pipe way before we had that morning and she was on a mission AND on fire! I said to myself, “I guess I better get my ass into gear because apparently the flat light doesn’t matter today!”
But Sarah wasn’t done, after she threw a few more corked 9’s, she moved to the other wall, where she started doing what looked to my snowboarder eye like an alley-oop backside rodeos (I apologize in advance if that’s totally inaccurate, but either way it was some sort of sick floaty, flippy, spinny trick). The girl was on a roll and it was really impressive to see her total concentration and ease. She was in the zone.
Sarah is a stud and there’s a reason she’s been at the top of her sport for 10 years: She knows how to walk the line and she does it damn well. So why is she fighting for her life because of a fall that looked like it shouldn’t have even caused a concussion? There are no answers. There are no guarantees. And that is the risk we all take with us every day in life. But that is why we must live and live well because nothing is guaranteed. I think Sarah would tell all of us to keep going, keep waking up early to land those tricks you’ve been dreaming of, but only if it’s done with 100 percent passion, pure fire, discipline and commitment.
Our job as pros is to walk a very fine line; be the best but stay healthy so you can continue to progress and be at the top. You can’t push the sport and yourself if you’re always hurt. Being at the top means never being satisfied with what you’re comfortable with — comfortable means you’ve stopped pushing and you’re either going to get passed or you already have been. But if you’re constantly pushing yourself, then you’re exposing yourself to falls and injuries. And that is the fine line I speak of.
Today was the first I’ve trained since I heard of Sarah’s fall. It was a cold, windy day up at Breckenridge and all I could think about was the wind and the firm pipe. It was scary. And, of course, I was thinking about Sarah and her condition. These are all of the things I shouldn’t have be thinking about, especially when I was trying to ride at a high level in tough conditions.
What was even worse is all of these questions and emotions are all too familiar. It was only two years ago that Kevin Pearce fell, eerily at around the exact same time of year and in the exact same pipe. Kevin survived, but his life has been changed forever.
We all realize what we do is dangerous. It’s not easy to haul ass into an icy wall and then at the top of its 22-foot wall, project ourselves into either a spin or a flip now around 30ish feet in the air. But all of us at the top have baby-stepped our way up to this level, and in this amazing journey we’ve gotten comfortable doing things that the average person would never dream of doing.
We’ve also learned that the more aggressive and committed we are to what we’re doing, the safer we become. It seems that whenever you ride with doubt, fear, hesitation, or even just on auto pilot unconsciousness, that’s when accidents happen. Which is why today, when I was riding, and thinking about all the things I shouldn’t have been with the wind blowing me sideways, I decided to leave.
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