Remembering Sarah Burke — Tag Kleiner
Sarah was incredible. I miss her every day.
Sarah quickly became such an integral part of the Smith brand after we signed her. She had a great personality. She dominated women’s skiing and also influenced women’s skiing. But she became so much more than just a ski athlete for us. We brought her everywhere—photoshoots with all of our athletes from other sports. She was everywhere with us.
Our philosophy isn’t necessarily to have the best athlete in their space, the one winning everything. That isn’t, in our opinion, what creates that bond between an athlete and brand and then the brand and the people we’re trying to influence. We look at it as a personality thing. We want it to fit. When we pick up an athlete, we want it to be for the long haul. And Sarah is so important to us first and foremost as a person and then as a brand ambassador. She was unique. No other athlete, male or female, has ever been quite the package that Sarah was. The combination of her incredible personality and friendliness and girl-next-door quality is amazing, but then underneath it is this amazing courage and drive to win and drive to push.
The last time I saw her was when we were doing a photoshoot in San Francisco. We had [Travis] Pastrana, some of our surfers, and a kayaker and a mountain biker. She had only known these guys for a day or two, and she was already giving them shit. At one point Pastrana was like, “Well, I’m just a goody two-shoes.” And we were like, “Bullshit, you have a shot named after you.” So we walked to the bar, and he ordered a shot for all of us. It’s a pint glass, and it’s one-third Sailor Jerry rum, one-third Jäger and one-third Red Bull. Sarah was the first one done. She won. I came back an hour later, and Sarah was still at the bar with all the other athletes and she was force-feeding them chilled vodka shots. It was incredible. The wheels had come off. It was chaos. And that was her personality. She made sure everyone was having fun.
There was so much I didn’t even know about Sarah. I knew what a wonderful person she was and how genuine she was, and I had a great friendship with her, but I never knew what she did behind the scenes. When she passed, the manager of our local hotel in Sun Valley, came by and dropped off a newspaper clipping from 1999. We had brought her up there for a little event called SolFest. She ended up being on the front page of the local newspaper, and she brought a bunch of copies home and signed them and sent a copy to the local hotel where she had stayed. She said, “Thank you so much.” And the manager wanted to let us know that Sarah did this out of the blue. I think she did that all the time and nobody knew. She was so appreciative of everything and so kind. It was very unique. You don’t encounter people like that as much as you should.
She never backed down from anything. She hurt herself a bunch, broke her back, and she kept pushing through it. It’s a sport that when you hit 21, you end up kind of phasing out. So, to be still dominating at her age is unheard of. I think a lot of it was because of her drive. Again, it was hidden under her welcoming personality. We have photos of her at the top of the pipe run, and I remember being there and she would flip a switch and focus. It was like, “OK, it’s go time. Now I’m gonna kick everybody’s ass. Then at the end of this run, I’m going to go back to being the Sarah that everybody loves.” But she was able to keep it on the course.
She was so encouraging and friendly and kept the atmosphere that way. Sarah wanted her peers to succeed because she wanted women’s skiing to succeed. She always wanted to win, but she also wanted women’s skiing to win. No one has done for women’s skiing, or skiing at all for that matter, what Sarah has done for skiing.
I’d like to see women step up to the table that Sarah set. She put everything on a platter for women’s skiing. It’s all right there. So I hope the next generation kind of picks it up and continues her legacy.
The branding and what have you really takes a back seat to the personal relationships. Sarah and CR Johnson were such incredible friends to this brand, and you can easily say that both of them were the best female and male skiers of their time. And we just miss them. I’m not going to miss Sarah’s skiing or what she did for the sport. I’m going to miss her friendship. I’m going to miss what she was to my daughter, who knew her pretty well. There will be other skiers and other women’s athletes, but there will never be another Sarah.
My daughter had recently been having nightmares about ghosts. She asked me if ghosts were real, and I said, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe they’re real. But I’m not afraid of them.” And she asked me why not. I said, “Well if you think about it, what is a ghost?” She said, “They’re dead people.” I said, “OK, well, when I think about the dead people that I know, I’m certainly not afraid of them. I think there’s Sarah up there and there’s CR and they’re just around. They are watching over us and helping take care of us. They’re making sure we’re on the right path and doing the right thing.” My daughter’s nightmares went away. And a lot of it is about understanding that these incredible people will always be with me. Sarah will always be with me. I get sad that she’s not here, which is the selfish side, but I will never be sad about the time I got to spend with her.