Olympic legacy of Canadian freeski pioneer Sarah Burke continues to shine 10 years after her death
Foundation created in her name helped 7 athletes reach Olympic stage in Beijing
Canada's Cassie Sharpe and Rachael Karker both won Olympic medals in the women's freeski halfpipe event in Beijing, but it was another Canadian who helped make it all possible.
Ten years after her tragic death, the powerful legacy and impact of freeski pioneer Sarah Burke can be seen all over the Beijing Games — from the events to the athletes.
The world's first female professional freeskier, Burke was a gold medal favourite for the 2014 Sochi Olympics when she died nine days after crashing while training on the superpipe in Park City, Utah. The Barrie, Ont., native was 29.
The six-time X Games medallist was the face of the sport she transformed. Her extensive lobbying efforts made it possible for both women's halfpipe and slopestyle to become Olympic events, and she helped guide so many athletes as a coach and mentor.
Since debuting in 2014, the women's freeski slopestyle and halfpipe events have become must-watch events at the Winter Games, with the level of competition constantly evolving and new stars emerging every four years.
"The amount of progression in the sport that I've seen in the last 20 years is pretty incredible," said Burke's husband, Rory Bushfield — a professional skier. "In the last decade as well, girls are skiing really well, and I think a lot are inspired by Sarah.
"If you asked any girl out there skiing, they've probably been inspired by Sarah in some way."
WATCH | Sharpe soars to Olympic silver in women's freeski halfpipe final:
When Canadian Dara Howell won gold in the inaugural Olympic women's slopestyle final as a teenager, she dedicated her victory to the person who mentored her and blazed the trail for all to follow.
"This medal is definitely for Sarah. She pushed the sport," Howell said after winning in Sochi.
Eight years later, Burke's impact on young Olympians continues to live on through the work of the foundation created in her honour.
Bushfield and her family started the Sarah Burke Foundation in 2012 to help exceptional young winter athletes pursue their goals with monetary scholarships — a reflection of Burke's kindness and generosity.
'It's cool to see Sarah shining through'
Happening just after the 10th anniversary of her death on Jan. 19, 2012, the Beijing Games signified a major milestone moment for the foundation, as seven scholarship recipients saw their Olympic dreams become reality.
"This would be the third Olympics after Sarah's passing, and it was really cool to watch and to be able to have helped a few kids along the way," Bushfield said. "They got themselves to the Olympics, but Sarah's legacy was able to help them. It's cool to see Sarah shining through still."
Six of the recipients made their Olympic debut in Beijing, including three Canadians, while the seventh was competing at her second Games since winning the scholarship.
Snowboarders Liam Gill (Canada), Tessa Maud (U.S) and Maddie Mastro (U.S), and freeskier Winter Vinecki (U.S.) are recipients of the "Up and Coming" scholarship — awarded to exceptional winter athletes under 18 who exhibit academic success and philanthropic spirit.
Freeskiers Megan Oldham (Canada), Elena Gaskell (Canada) and Kirsty Muir (Great Britain) are recipients of the "Spirit of Sarah" scholarship, which is given to promising female skiers who best embody Burke's strengths and characteristics.
Another "Up and Coming" recipient, Dylan Ladd (U.S.), was selected as an alternate for the men's freeski slopestyle event.
Above all else, both scholarships recognize athletes who possess the kind of altruistic character and ideals Burke was known for.
Bushfield said it was an easy decision when it came to helping Gill on his Olympic journey, as like all the recipients he personified the qualities that made Burke such a positive influence on young athletes.
"He's just an incredible kid. He's so well spoken and such a good snowboarder, and everybody that talks about him has the nicest things to say," Bushfield said. "He embodies such a beautiful spirit. He's going to go places for sure, no matter what he does."
A member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., Gill is a pioneer in own right as the only indigenous member of Canada's Olympic snowboard team.
And he is already focused on inspiring the next generation in ways that Burke would undoubtedly be proud of.
"It means a lot to represent my heritage, and I think it's very important to hopefully inspire kids back in Canada to get involved in sports and find something to do and find a passion," Gill said.
The difference that financial assistance can make for young aspiring athletes is immense, especially when undertaking the long journey required to reach the biggest stage in international sport.
"When you're a kid trying to make it to the Olympics or even just the next competition, there's lots of stuff going on in your life, everything's compiling," Bushfield said. "If we can give a kid a grant in that situation and give them that little push that they need to be able to get to the next competition, which might be the one that qualifies them to get to the Olympics, I think it's cool to be able to help."
All the recipients are now finished competing in Beijing, but the road ahead appears bright with the oldest among them being just 23.
Oldham narrowly missed the podium in big air, while Gill stepped up for Canada as a last-minute replacement in halfpipe. Gaskell suffered an injury before she could compete, but Muir made it to both the slopestyle and big air finals.
Reflecting on the monumental moment, Bushfield said it was the biggest milestone in the foundation's proud history.
"It was really, really cool to watch them. It brings a tear to my eye to see those kids dropping into the Olympics," Bushfield said.
The future of the foundation also looks promising, with goals to give back even more while continuing to keep Burke's memory alive and well.
"The plan is to be able to help more kids and grow the foundation," Bushfield said. "We're going to continue to the foundation as long as we can, and Sarah's legacy will last forever."
WATCH | Replay of Olympic women's freeski halfpipe final: