In January 2005, I found myself in Aspen, Colorado for my first winter season out west. I was an eager 18-year-old girl from the East Coast, ready to take on the freeskiing industry, set new standards and win the X-Games. I was full of fire, ambition and fight. I talked big game, I was over-confident, very excited, and underprepared. I walked away finishing 9th out of 10 competitors that year; falling on nearly every run of a generous 3-run final. Every year since 2005 I have returned to Aspen ready to compete; always a little more experienced and filled with the perfect balance of excitement and anxiety. To this date, I have 5 Winter X-Games medals and 2 golds in halfpipe skiing. This last Wednesday, January 25, I had a stirring of butterflies in my stomach as I exited I-70, routed CO-82, and headed the 35 miles toward Aspen. However this year, the butterflies were not in anticipation of competing in the most prestigious event in freeskiing, but for an entirely different reason. You see, two weeks prior, several distinct events took place that would change the course of my life.
At 6:45 a.m. on January 10, 2012, my alarm went off. I stirred, hit the snooze button, shifted my body slightly and closed my eyes again. I could hear the distant voices of my US Freeskiing teammates and coaches in the kitchen- raring to go. We had sled laps starting at 7:30 and they would only last until 9 a.m. But I wasn’t feeling it. I made the decision to sleep more, to let myself acclimate- it was my first day in Breck, I didn’t need to be taking sled laps at 7:30 in the morning. About an hour later I pulled myself out of bed- headed to the kitchen for a leisurely breakfast in a giant, quite house, abandoned by my eager teammates. My phone rang- my best friend and teammate for years, Jess Cumming, was on the line. She asked what my plan was for the day and I told her: I was tired, and not rushing out, planning on taking a mellow first day here to get ready for the weeks and months of chaos ahead. Jess was more than okay with my plan. As it was, she was coming over to Breckenridge to announce her retirement to our staff of coaches. I understood. Part of me was envious of her decision. To step away from all of the pressure, the expectations, the risk, the hard work; it sounded nice. But I was not done- there was more that I still wanted to accomplish out there on my skis- I wasn’t ready to turn it all in.
The weather was gorgeous in Breck- warmer than usual, sunny, not very windy- and I was out just to have fun. I followed the boys off of the bottom two jumps in Freeway after hitting the pipe and was pleasantly surprised at how soft the landings were. The jumps were much bigger than the jumps in Park City, but felt better because Breck wasn’t having the same thaw and freeze cycles that we were experiencing in PC. After a few laps I met up with Jess and a few other girls. I skipped the jumps for a few runs and then went back to them about an hour later. As I got to the start of the bottom two jumps I thought I knew the speed. I cleared the first jump and then went into the second jump. As soon as I left the top of the jump I knew I made a mistake. I was coming up short and I tried to prepare myself for the impact... With all of my effort trying to stretch for the landing, to wriggle my way over the knuckle, but to no avail. The impact was too great and my knee erupted. I began sliding down the landing and didn’t have the muscle control to pull my leg into my chest. I rolled over my leg twice and continued to slide, until I came to a stop. Expletives were flying out of my mouth because I knew I was done. Done for the day, for the year, for the rest of my career?
Over the next few hours I got X-Rays, scheduled an MRI, and tried not to be too discouraged. My phone was ringing quite a bit, and around 2 pm I got a call from Meg Olenick. She wanted to check up on me, but there was something else going on; I could tell by the unsteadiness in her voice. “Sarah took a bad fall, Jen. She’s being airlifted to the hospital. Her heart stopped for several minutes.” My brain, heart and body went into emotional overdrive. Everything began to hurt more. But there was no reason to stress yet. Sarah is the strongest girl that any of us know- tougher than nails. She will be fine. Sarah is always fine.
I received the results from my MRI- it appears as if a bomb went off in your knee. Your ACL is completely gone, you’ve torn your medial meniscus, there seems to be a floater in there- a piece of bone perhaps, and you’ve compressed your femur- there is a large indentation on the femoral condial and a disruption to the articular cartilage surface. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. With how that impact felt, I’m glad that that was it. Right now, I just wanted to get back to Utah, to be closer to Sarah and her family, to sleep in my own bed and begin processing what was going on.
The next week was an emotional rollercoaster. There was very little news leaving the hospital regarding Sarah’s condition. We were all operating under the guise that no-new-is-good-news, but somewhere in my heart things did not feel right. Ten days after Sarah’s crash, she passed away. The damage in her brain was irreversible and there was nothing that anyone could do to bring her back. At this point, time came to a complete stand still. It felt as if the whole world stopped turning, yet everything continued on around me. The Winter Dew Tour in Killington was taking place that weekend and athletes would be expected to compete- Sarah weighing heavily on their minds.
So as I exited I-70 on Wednesday January 25th and had butterflies in my stomach, it wasn’t because of the prospect of winning another X-Games gold (that wouldn’t be happening, I wouldn’t be competing), but because it was time to be reunited with my extended family after Sarah’s passing. I wasn’t sure how I would feel. Would I feel comforted being with everyone? Would I harbor resentment, envy? Would I question the purpose of all of this? Would I feel deeply saddened, angry, mad? The answer is yes. But then I would ask another question: why? And to that I would find many answers.
Everywhere I looked, I saw sympathetic faces. Faces that said, “I can’t believe this happened, I am hurt and sad and scared, but more inspired than ever.” Every time someone smiled, it was Sarah smiling through. The whole industry, ski and snowboard alike, was united, and for the first time, it felt as if we were all in this together. The boundaries that Sarah broke for female skiers were uncanny- there are too many to name in one short article, but what became even more apparent this last week, was how much she touched the lives of every action sports athlete, female and male alike. You see, Sarah embodied what we are all about: perseverance, breaking boundaries, setting new standards, doing it because we were told we can’t, making something out of nothing, skiing because we love it. They say the brightest flames burn half as long, but I don’t think Sarah’s flame has been put out. I think Sarah’s flame has just been ignited for the first time. Now, more than ever, people are hearing about Sarah, listening and understanding her intentions, comprehending what she was about and finding ways to implement that into their own lives. She is changing the world.
As I sit here, writing this 3 days post knee surgery, reflecting on the coincidence of blowing my knee on the same fateful day that Sarah crashed, I cannot throw in the towel and say, “I’m done.” Now, more than ever, is the time to shift my perspective and remember why I started down this path- aspiring to one day live like Sarah Burke. Life is only worth living if we are doing what we love.