Remembering Sarah Burke — Anna Phelan
I was 7 so I remember Sarah being born, and I was upset for a while. My mom and dad did everything in their power to include me, but of course, everyone wants to see the new shiny baby. There is this picture of me, my mom and Sarah as a baby, and I look pretty forlorn. This little child had come into our house and taken my place.
I don’t know if there was ever a rivalry. She quite clearly adored me and wanted to be around me all the time. If I was doing something, she wanted to be there doing it with me. If I was in my room, she would sit in the corner, just to be there.
She was always very vocal. She would let you know what she wanted and when she wanted it, but she had a little speech impediment and had a hard time with her Rs. No one seemed to understand her, so my mother would always bring her to me to translate, which was funny.
One of her favorite activities would be to come tearing into the kitchen or the dining room and [our father] would be lying on the floor with his feet up. She’d jump onto his feet with her stomach, he’d grab onto her hands and flip her over his head. She was probably 5 or 6 then and she was already tumbling. It was pretty fun to watch. I would always get worried that she’d hurt herself, but she never did.
I was away at University and I didn’t really understand what it was, this newschool, freestyle skiing thing. But I do remember my mother calling me and freaking out because she was moving to Mammoth and would be living with all these other teenagers. I thought my mother was crazy to let her go. I didn’t really get it.
Seeing her sponsored and spending all this time connecting, emailing and on phone calls; that was her job. That took me a little while to adjust to. It was very unconventional. But once I got to see her in action, way back when, at the US Open it was eye opening. It made me very proud.
The injustices that she fought against for so many years in the ski industry were a constant source of frustration. We had those conversations that it just wasn’t fair. I remember when she started bombing people with emails everyday; c’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Just fighting for it.
I remember seeing her in Vail, at the bottom of the halfpipe. She was upset that the girls only got one run, but the boys had three. She was smiling for the cameras, but you could see a little trickle of a tear coming down the side of her face because she was so upset at how unfair it seemed. But she wasn’t going to let anyone see it. She put a smile on her face, kept her goggles on; kept that brave front up and kept fighting. She handled herself with such grace.
I only knew her as Sarah. She never made a distinction between skier Sarah and sister Sarah. She never treated me any differently whether we were in Aspen with her ski family or when she was here in our house with our family.
She always made me feel really, really special. I knew how many people were in her life and how much more exciting her life must have been than ours. Sometimes it was just a call that morning, like last December. “Hey I’m getting on a plane, you guys around?” She wasn’t usually here in December. So that was pretty fortuitous that we got to see her for a couple weeks and got to enjoy her company.
I loved to brag about her, and I’m sure people got kind of sick of it early on. If you’re wondering if there was any jealously or rivalry, absolutely not. I loved talking about her. People could get excited when I told them that, that was my sister.
I don’t think I realized, unfortunately, until this winter, how far she reached because she never made a big deal. She never bragged; it was like pulling teeth to get information out of her. What magazines are you in? What awards are you winning? I had to look it up online because she never ever brought it up. The length of her reach and her fame around the world is continuing to blow my mind a bit.
I don’t know that I fully understood the extent or the ramifications of exactly what had happened, or maybe I didn’t want to. I was a little numb. She’d broken her back, she’d broken her sternum, she’d had concussions and torn up her knees. Of course she came through all of them with flying colors. She worked so hard on herself physically that she could bounce back from these bodily injuries.
The support for our family was amazing. From the sponsors and friends who were at the hospital to everyone around the world sending in gifts and letters. It blows my mind because we never really understood the full extent of how famous she is.
I enjoy hearing from her friends on Facebook or email and what she meant to them. Those are the stories that I cherish the most. Seeing how they loved her. It’s just really nice to hear from other people, as they knew her differently from me.
I’ll always have a huge amount of pride and honor that I got to know her for 29 years. For what she was able to accomplish by following her heart. And doing it with such a sense of humility and grace. With all she accomplished, she never lost sense of who she was, even in the face of difficulty. I’ll always remember my sister.