Sarah Burke's Legacy—Risk-Taking in Sports Is Not Just for Men

Susan T. SpencerGuest ColumnistJanuary 21, 2012

Sarah Burke winning Gold at the Winter X Games
Sarah Burke winning Gold at the Winter X GamesDoug Pensinger/Getty Images


Women athletes compete in several extreme sports but until now nobody seemed to notice.

Why does it take a catastrophic occurrence for women to get national attention for competing in death-defying extreme sports, performing the same feats and taking the same risks as men?

On January 10, 2012, injury struck top freestyle skier Sarah Burke, a favorite contender for an Olympic medal. She was doing what she loved, practicing for an upcoming freestyle half-pipe competition. The injury proved fatal as she died nine days later. She was 29.

Sarah was a fierce competitor whose knees and shoulder were as torn up as an NFL linebacker’s and whose eye-catching natural beauty and welcoming personality belied the fact that she was a skiing “superstar.”

This phenomenal freestyle skier backed up her talent by winning gold medals in the halfpipe skiing category for women at the Winter X Games four times (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011). She probably would have won in 2010 had she not been recovering from a fall that broke a bone in her lower back. 

Sarah wasn't just a one-dimensional dare-devil—she was a mentor and an outspoken advocate for females in her sport. She put a full court press on the Olympic committee until they agreed to add women’s half-pipe freestyle skiing to the games in 2014.

Make no mistake about it: Sarah’s sport is beyond dangerous. Imagine being on skis and doing spins and somersaults after being catapulted up to 40 feet in the air and descending at a speed of about 30 miles per hour, all the while hoping to land firmly on your skis as they hit a surface that is rock hard.  

Sarah’s courtship, love story and marriage to skier Rory Bushfield is memorialized on Youtube. Her words eerily echo a prophecy that came way too soon:  “we met [on a mountain]...we play...we live...and hopefully where we will die.”

Sarah will not be forgotten. She was a trailblazing freestyle skier who broke gender stereotypes, showcased the wildest and most difficult tricks, and pushed as hard as she could to make sure that women would have equal access to the professional sport that took her life.

She succeeded as an athlete and a woman at the highest level.

She is a true hero.