Remembering Sarah Burke — Riley Poor
I remember meeting Sarah at one of the early US Opens in Vail, downstairs at the lodge where they did registration. She was super happy and sparkly—and attractive. Everyone was buzzing over her, and I don’t think it was necessarily for her skiing at that time.
When I started filming with Sarah for Matchstick Productions, I was traveling pretty much year round with Rory. We were with Pollard, and it was the first year he brought Erin [his future wife] almost everywhere he went. Bushy was like, “I want a girl around.” So he offered me a hundred bucks for every shoot I could get him on with Sarah, ’cause that was when they were starting to kind of hang out together. Rory and I ended up going over to St. Anton, and she was over there for a Helly Hansen thing. We were there just dirt bagging it, trying to find hotels, so Bushy ended up staying with her for a couple nights. When Sarah left, Bushy came back and was like, “You have to get Sarah shooting with us. I have to be traveling with that girl.”
So she came up to Crested Butte, and I was basically with Rory and her as she learned how to ride a sled and get out in the backcountry. Within a year though, she just fully grasped it—how to jump off cliffs, how to spin off jumps in the backcountry. She put it all together super fast. That first year she had enough shots to make a full-on Matchstick segment. She was going for it. It was pretty rad.
We never had to adapt anything we were doing for her. She was on board and immediately just one of the guys. She approached it with an attitude of, “This is what I’m here to do.”
I think it was the next year, I was with her and Bushy up in Squamish and pretty much shot with those guys every day we could. I ended up living with them because I was really dedicated to Rory as a filmer and a friend. Living with her definitely made me realize her patience and passion and how rad she really was, just because she was dealing with Rory. I can barely deal with him, you know, day to day. [laughs]
She had this insane patience for him that none of his friends had. We had a Christmas tree in the house. It was way too tall for their apartment, but we put it up anyway. The top of the tree was against the vaulted ceiling—it was so janky. She smiled, went ahead and decorated the tree. A couple days later, we realized that the slanted roof was going to push the tree over, so we needed to make it smaller. Rory just tipped the tree over in the living room, dragged the back end out the patio door, got his chainsaw, lit it up, sawed like three feet off the bottom of the tree without taking off any ornaments or lights. Then Sarah helped him put the tree back up and fix the lights. All of a sudden the house was a disaster zone: pine needles everywhere, chainsaw dust, broken ornaments. It didn’t even matter to her because she was doing something with Rory.
At home she just seemed really refreshed. She could switch off the ski world a lot better than other people. She was immediately into whatever was going on in her domestic life, with Rory, with her friends, with hobbies. It was really easy for her to not talk about skiing and not stress. Off the mountain and under her own roof, you would never know that she was some famous skier. You’d just have a creative and energetic young woman.
I don’t really think I let her friendship have a profound effect on me until her death. On my part, I took it for granted that we had another amazing friend in our family. After she passed away, just realizing that someone can give you that much energy and put that much into other people in her life…. When that was taken away, it left a void in so many people’s lives, and that makes you realize in your own life that the energy you’re putting into people actually matters. There needs to be a positive energy because you’re never going to have the kind of support or love that we seek as humans if you’re putting out negative energy. And Sarah constantly was so positive. Looking back after she passed away, I could never come up with a time when I saw her really bummed.
What really blew me away about her, compared to other professional athletes in the snow world, was that she took care of so much of her own stuff. She kind of controlled her own career and made the call on what was right to do and when to do it. It was all on her accord. She took care of all her travel and all her finances. Pretty impressive to see in somebody, and it just seemed completely effortless, the way she operated. And somehow it left her enough time to do amazing things for her friends and to be a rock for her family. I don’t know how she balanced it all. I’m not very good at it.
I knew from what I had been through and the amount of support I had received from all my friends—I mean Sarah had a broken back herself and came to visit me when I was in the hospital—I always had it in my head that I needed to be there for anybody in some sort of similar circumstance, but I never saw anything like that coming. January 10 was actually the three-year anniversary of my accident, so that was a pretty hard day for me as it was. When I heard, I thought, “Are you kidding me?” I tried to get on the phone with Rory right away, and he texted me that he would call me back a little later. He called me from the airport, and I just said, “I’m here for you. What do you want me to do? Do you want me to get on a plane?” And he said, “Yeah, that would be great.”
I was obviously expecting to be there in a different capacity, more as support during a recovery, letting the friends and family see that people who go through traumatic injuries can come out on the other side with a smile on their face. But then things kind of changed once I got there, and the severity of the situation became clear. I was there for Rory and to enjoy the last time I got to really be with Sarah.
For the general population of our community—and I call it our family— she’s that constant reminder that life is chaotic. You never know what’s around the corner. How do we really want to treat each other? How do we want to be remembered? That is probably the biggest impact she’ll have on those who truly choose to remember her and that positivity and just injecting that into the relationships that really mattered to her, which for her was everyone. That’s the legacy she leaves behind, in my eyes, being that guiding light of how you can accomplish it all and embrace it all and keep a balance of everything.
— Riley Poor: Filmmaker
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Freeskier Magazine—This is skiing.