Sarah Burke on minds of X Games athletes |

Sarah Burke on minds of X Games athletes

Michael Appelgate
The Aspen Times
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen TimesWinter X Games athletes Gretchen Bleiler and Shaun White react to a tribute to Sarah Burke at a press conference Wednesday afternoon at Buttermilk. Burke, a Canadian freeskier and four-time X Games gold medalist, died last week following a fall while training in Park City, Utah. A tribute to Burke is scheduled for tonight's X Games broadcast on ESPN.

ASPEN, Colorado – Athletes at Wednesday’s Winter X Games news conference struck a reflective tone about the life and death of Sarah Burke, a pioneer in women’s freeskiing who would have competed at Buttermilk this week.

One by one, smiling competitors filed into the media tent. As soon as the conference started, the mood dramatically shifted to a somber tone.

“This Winter X Games is going to be in her spirit and in her memory,” said Sal Masekela, host of ESPN and ESPN2’s coverage of the Games. “If there is one thing about Sarah which she would want, she would want the show to go on.”

Burke, a Canadian freeskier, died Jan. 19 after suffering irreversible brain damage from a training crash in Park City, Utah, nine days earlier. She was a six-time Winter X gold medalist and is credited with promoting her sport and propelling it to new levels of popularity.

ESPN freeskiing analyst Mike Douglas, who has followed Burke’s career closely, said the past two weeks have been some of the most difficult in his life.

“She had the talent, drive and passion to make it in this sport,” Douglas said. “With freeskiing being such a young sport at that time when she began, there weren’t a lot of icons. Sarah stepped up into that role right away.”

As Douglas spoke, forlorn looks and tears formed in the eyes of such athletes as two-time Winter Olympic gold medalist Sean White, Burke’s Canadian teammate Kaya Turski, and Snowmass Village’s Gretchen Bleiler.

After Douglas finished, Masekela announced that there would be an athlete tribute to Burke during tonight’s broadcast.

“This year is such a great time for us to all come together and do what we do best and celebrate Sarah,” Bleiler said. “She is X Games and is what X Games is all about. I think that’s why this year is going to be better than ever.”

Another question sparked more discussion about the nature of action sports and the risk of injury in light of Burke’s training accident. The question was directed at Caleb Moore, a snowmobile rider who has won three medals in two X Games appearances.

“When it comes down to it, I’d say most of us do this not for the medals or for the attention, but because it’s fun,” Moore said. “I don’t think about the danger of the race, I just have to go out there and have fun and push it as hard as I can.”

Also addressed in the conference was the fact that Aspen is in the final year of its contract with ESPN to host the Games.

“Today is a perfect example of why Aspen and X Games go together,” Bleiler said. “It would be awkward anywhere else. I hope to see the games in Aspen for many years to come. The community here is so special and has really embraced the X Games. The cheers and the energy we get from the crowd is pretty unreal.”

White added: “I like Aspen. It’s definitively one of the more exciting towns because of the nightlife. It’s a destination which people are very excited to come to.”

Competition begins at 10:30 a.m. today with the men’s ski slopestyle elimination followed by the women’s ski slopestyle final at 1:30 p.m.

Tonight, the snowmobile freestyle final begins at 7, with the men’s ski slopestyle final at 7:45.

The tribute to Burke will take place before the snowmobile final. Then, as Masekela said, the Games will go on just like Burke would have wanted.

“If there is anything we should remember about Sarah, is the type of person she was inside,” Douglas said. “She gave more than she took and always took the time to talk to virtually everybody. She showed us what it is like to be a truly great person, and I really hope her legacy is carried on.”

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