Grace and Humility: Celebrating the gift of Sarah Burke
By Trennon Paynter
Sarah will always be one of the best friends that I have ever had. I enjoyed coaching her, and we had a great working relationship, but her friendship was even more important to me. The times that Sarah helped me—supported me through personal troubles, drove me to the airport, fed me the best holiday meals, kept me awake on long drives, dragged me on to the dance floor and told me to smarten up when I needed to—will always be the defining memories of her that I carry with me.
The first time I ever coached Sarah was in Finland at the 2005 World Championships. I was there with a group of other Canadian halfpipe skiers. Sarah and I were already friends from hanging out a little at summer camps in Whistler, but we didn’t know each other extremely well.
Since I was there as a coach, I wanted to make sure that Sarah knew I was ready to help her out if she wanted any coaching. The thing was, I really wasn’t sure how to approach her about it. She was already a famous ski industry superstar at that point and was also the favorite to win her event. I didn’t want an offer of “coaching” her to sound like I thought she needed help. Somehow, very awkwardly, I got the point across. She accepted the offer, and I spent the rest of the week coaching her along with my group.
She won the event, as I’m sure she would have without any help from me or anyone else. Still, being the gracious person that she was, she thanked me for the help afterwards. Then a few months later I got an email from her. She thanked me again for coaching her at that event and mentioned how she liked training with the group. She then surprised me by asking if she could join our team for the following season. The funny thing about it all was that I could sense the awkwardness she felt making the request, and it seemed to mirror the awkwardness that I had originally felt about offering to coach her. Needless to say, the team and I were totally stoked to have Sarah join our program, and we made it happen.
Coaching Sarah wasn’t so much a job as it was a gift. What coach wouldn’t want an opportunity to work with the world’s best? To learn how a champion thinks, works, and learns?
Sarah had this incredible ability to move through, and beyond, her failures. It really is true that how you deal with defeat and failure is the true measure of strength, and Sarah demonstrated that kind of strength better than anyone I know.
In terms of dealing with success, Sarah also shone as a great example of grace and humility. No matter how big an industry star she became, she managed to stay grounded. She never demanded anything and always made sure to show appreciation for the little things. Despite being the oldest on the team and the most accomplished, she would be the first to volunteer to sleep on the couch if accommodations were tight.
The effect she had on others was one of the most special things about her, in large part because of her ability to interact with people on a level that was so genuine. She had some magic way of cutting through all the fronts and social screens that most people have and connecting directly with the real person inside. There was always a really cool, no-bullshit, honest feeling about talking to Sarah.
Sarah also made a great impact on the sport with her activism. She worked tirelessly for more women’s ski events, and her phone calls, letters and meetings were instrumental in getting women’s ski events added to the X Games. Through her efforts with the Women’s Sports Foundation, she helped share the sport experience that she loved so much with girls around the world.
Every summer, legions of young girls would show up at Momentum camp, clamoring for the opportunity to ski with her. These girls would leave not only having had the chance to ski with their idol but also having become her friends. Over the years, many of them went on to rise through the ranks themselves, and before long some of them were competing with, and against, Sarah at X Games and the Dew Tour.
Within our team, Sarah was the seasoned veteran who knew how to succeed (while still knowing how to have a damn good time). Everyone on the team, male and female, looked up to her. She was the one who everyone could go to for advice (me included), and she was always happy to give it. She was the one who stayed up late on the long drives, making sure the driver had company, cooked something awesome for everyone on a day off and jumped out from behind a door to scare the shit of you when you weren’t expecting it.
The last time I saw Sarah was on my birthday. I had asked a few of my best friends if they wanted to meet for a sushi dinner. I asked if she was going to make it to dinner, but she told me she was going to be out of town.
Rory showed up at my house that night to pick me up and told me there was a present for me in the backseat. When I looked in the backseat, I saw a pile of clothing on the floor, which all of a sudden erupted into a smiling Sarah, who jumped out and scared me like she always loved doing. In true Sarah fashion, she had been planning for my birthday all along, with a cake ready, a ton of super thoughtful presents and a card for me. The card read: “To the greatest coach and friend of all time!” I cannot imagine receiving a better compliment, from a better person. I’ll treasure that card, as well as every second of time that I spent with Sarah, for the rest of my life. Sarah is not gone. I can say that with absolute certainty because I still see her every day, in the faces of those she was close to.
I love you Sarah.