The death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke has provoked an outpouring of sympathy and grief, as Canadians remember one of the most accomplished freestyle skiers of her generation. Sarah's event was superpipe skiing, which is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Like its snowboarding counterpart, superpipe skiing has always revolved around the notion of pushing physical boundaries; Sarah's death is certain to re-open a debate about athlete safety.
On December 31, 2009, American snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic head injury while training at Park City Mountain in Utah - the very same halfpipe where Sarah suffered her life-ending accident. Like Sarah, Kevin was an established star in his sport, expected to challenge fellow American Shaun White for a gold medal at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Instead, Kevin was air-lifted to a Utah hospital, and spent a week in critical condition, fighting for his life. He has now recovered to the point where he can ride again, although not as a competitive athlete.
What isn't often highlighted is how quickly halfpipe events have evolved, encouraging athletes to attempt bigger tricks and take bigger risks. When halfpipe snowboarding made its Olympic debut in 1998, the walls of the pipe were 11-and-a-half feet high; today, competition halfpipe walls are a whopping 22 feet. For elite skiers and snowboarders, who also launch themselves above the lip of the pipe, it's the equivalent of jumping off a two- or three-story building. Sarah's success in her sport was, in part, a testament to her courage.
But the new pipes are actually safer than some of the early generation pipes, according to the experts. Dr. Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon and head physician for U.S. Snowboarding, told the Vancouver Sun that "the transition or curvature, the vertical part of the wall to bottom, is very gentle". He went on to say that "the athletes have a healthy respect for their sport and what they do and what the risks are".
Sarah's family is now facing a $550,000 medical bill because the skier may not have had medical insurance for the unsanctioned event. A website has been set up by Burke's family asking for donations to help cover Sarah's medical expenses.