The People’s Queen: The Sarah Burke Profile

The People’s Queen: The Sarah Burke Profile

*Originally published in the Feb. 2009 issue of Freeskier. Words by Tess Weaver.

Everyone has a story about Sarah Burke. A filmer will tell you about an 80-foot table and crashes that would make the toughest of guys call it a day. Her boyfriend [ed. note: now husband] will never forget the hike with the mandatory 15-foot jump and near death tree shimmy. Friends remember her at the bars with a broken nose and two black eyes. Her young nephews love the postcards she sends them from all over the world. Talk to Burkey's family, friends, peers and sponsors and you'll hear many of the same compliments. Her work ethic and dogged determination have paved the way for women's freeskiing, while her optimism, humility and, let's face it, dreamy looks have earned her a reputation as skiing's girl next door.

"I'm driven and competitive," says Burke. "I'm a perfectionist. It can be the best and worst thing for me. But that's what made me successful. That's what drives me." How this determination has fueled Burke for more than a decade is beyond her peers. "I don't understand how that head of hers works," says Grete Eliassen, who idolized Burke for years before becoming a professional skier herself. "She's so focused. I don't know where it comes from."

The Youngster
We saw it right from the very start," says Sarah's mother Jan, who is a sculpter and painter in Squamish, British Columbia. "We would all head down the groomed runs and four-year-old Sarah would make a beeline for the black diamonds. You would just see this little head pop up and down through the moguls. She always took her own path."
Born into a family of artists, Burke spent the first 18 years of her life between the modest Ontario towns of Hillsdale and Midland (where Burke was recently inducted into the Midland Sports Hall of Fame). What the area lacked in population and stoplights, it made up for in accessible ski hills, particularly, the 300-foot tall Horseshoe Valley resort five minutes from the Burke household. She fell into a schedule: school, snack, night skiing, dinner, homework, bed. The Burkes skied as a family until Gord and Jan separated. Skiing was the common bond that held Sarah and her father together through it all. He worked hard to get her to contests and keep her skiing. Meanwhile, Burke's mother stressed the importance of finishing school. After foregoing her dream of becoming an Olympic figure skater, Burke started competing in moguls when she was 13 and within a year she was on the provincial team. That same year she went to camp at Whistler and met Mike Douglas. "She was a youngster, reasonably talented, cute little girl," says Douglas. "But where she shined was in the air, she could spin like a top. And she seemed to land on her feet most of the time. She was a bit of a natural."
The Warrior
"It doesn't come easy to her," says skier Rory Bushfield, Burke's boyfriend [ed. note, now husband] of five years. "She trains hard. She's always in the gym. She enters contests to win. When it comes down to it, she just wants it more than anyone else."
"I know I have to have some talent," admits Burke. "But I don't have as much as a lot of girls out there. Take for instance, Kristi [Leskinen]. She's talented without practice. I've always practiced and worked hard. I eat shit a lot and take a lot of crashes." Burke doesn't just take crashes, she takes spectacular, bone shattering, nose breaking, concussion inducing wipe outs on a consistent basis.

Last year, while filming a photoshoot at Hood, Burke joined Jon Olsson, Colby West, TJ Schiller and Sammy Carlson—arguably the best park skiers on the planet—to session an 80-foot table. Despite several falls that would have had any of the guys out for the day, Burke hit the monster seven times. "I'm blown away with the crashes Sarah can take," says Murray Wais, who has worked with Sarah on the last five Matchstick Production movies. "I don't think there are any athletes we film with who are as tough as Sarah. It's her determination, drive and toughness that has impressed our camera crews."

Burke exudes a quiet strength. She's notorious for downplaying injuries. She skied an entire season on a torn MCL. She competed in Gravity Games with a broken thumb. A torn meniscus had her limping as she won the very first World Superpipe Championships. Burke might feel like crying, but she won't do it in front of anyone.

cc_sarahxgames2_shay.jpgPerhaps Burke's recipe for winning every major pipe competition in the world, landing the first women's 1080 in competition and winning an ESPY is her style of competitiveness. Burke isn't competitive with anyone but herself. The person she dreads letting down the most is herself. "She's one of the nicest people I've ever met," says Whistler based Blake Jorgenson, who photographed Sarah in the Washington backcountry and on the glacier at Hood last year. "She has this demeanor that's very calming. It's weird. I'm sure she's competitive, but she doesn't have that hungry thing, maybe because she wins everything. She's very zen-like when it comes to skiing. She's able to enjoy it for what it is."

The Homebody
Burke just returned home from a three-week surf trip to Brazil. She's barely unpacked her bags and she's already back to remodeling the kitchen and making Rory pancakes. The self proclaimed baker and lover of all TV shows home and garden, Burke enjoys the quieter side of life whenever she's home in her peaceful neighborhood of Squamish, British Columbia. "She's always cared about making things like Christmas and birthdays really special," says her mother. "She values that sense of home, having a special place and making it wonderful."
Burke first tested her hostess skills as a teenager, throwing a legendary Halloween party. She convinced her dad to loan her his large studio warehouse outside of town, then spent a month planning the decorations, strobe lights and music. The night went down in the record books as the pinnacle of parties for hundreds of Midland high schoolers.
The Wild Child
"She comes off as a sweetheart and pretty chill but then get a drink or two into her all of a sudden the animal comes out," says Douglas. "There's been more than one occasion when I've had to physically drag her out of a bar. She'll be trying to pay for drinks with her driver's license. She has a bit of a wild side." If you don't like vodka shots or strenuous dancing, avoid Sarah Burke on a big night out. Her nickname in high school was "devil" and she doesn't take no for an answer. Burke's ability to let loose is a refreshing complement to her work ethic. It's reassuring to know Burke gets hangovers, just like the rest of us.

cc_sarahburke_jay_aspenco.jpgJessica Nicks, who grew up with Burke in Midland, remembers a lot of MTV countdowns and all-night dance parties. "Her secret dream job would a music video back up dancer," says Nicks. "I just really like to dance," says Burke. "I do it anytime I get a chance to. I think it's something from a past life. I even pretend I'm a ballerina every once in a while. I have a weak spot for dance movies like Step Up. It's kind of embarrassing." Burke also has an affinity for sugar highs, expensive shoes, procrastinating and wrestling. "It's one of my super powers," she says. "I have these magnetic feet. Once I stick 'em to the ground, I'm extremely hard to un-stick. And I do a really good headlock."

The Role Model
Before most of today's female freeskiers owned their first pair of twin tips, Burke was winning contests. "For the longest time it was just the two of us," says Kristi Leskinen, who has been competing with Burke for a decade. "I remember hearing about her long before I met her. I just kept hearing about this girl from Canada who could do 1080s. People tried to build this rivalry, but it was just wasn't going to happen. There was plenty of room in the industry for both of us." Burke is the most visible, iconic women's park skier in the world, but what has made her so effective as an industry catalyst is her approachability.

As a 15-year-old camper, Grete Eliassen first met Coach Sarah on the Hortsmann Glacier in Whistler. She knew Burke from the movies and magazines, but still remembers seeing her for the first time. "I thought, oh my god, there she is, there's my idol right there." Seeing Sarah in old ski movies, Eliassen wondered if she herself could make a living doing what she loved. Young girls can relate to Sarah Burke, which is why Roxy lured Burke away from Volkl three years ago to be one of their first snow ambassadors.

It's a unique blend of talent, marketability and attitude that makes Burke a valuable spokesperson. "A lot of people can make incremental changes," says Jessica Dalpiaz, Women's Team Manager for Roxy. "They can influence an individual or a small group, but Sarah is able to influence the industry as whole." It's a job Burke takes seriously. She claims she procrastinates and turns her phone off too much, but the ski industry knows her as nothing less than punctual, polite and reliable. In a time when pros communicate through publicists and leave new boots behind to avoid overweight fees, Burke's respectful attitude is a campaign against elitism.

The Advocate
"I don't think people recognize how much Sarah has done for the sport," says Douglas. "Everything she's done has been so powerful for women's freeskiing."
"Ever since I was a kid I just thrived off of someone saying 'no you can't'," says Burke. "Doubt sets this fire inside me and makes me want to prove everyone wrong." Burke discovered life wasn't fair at a fairly young age. She left the world of aerials for big air, where there was no category for girls. Burke was matching the tricks her male counterparts were throwing, but she wasn't allowed to compete. Sometimes she would be promised the chance to forerun only to be replaced at the last minute.

Sarah Burke"I was irate," says Burke. "I remember making phone call after phone call to my dad. I would be heartbroken. I really did take it personally. It would make me so upset, I would become even more determined to prove them wrong." Burke has spent the better part of a decade winning contests, garnering mainstream media attention and fighting for female skiers to compete, take home equal prize winnings and be treated fairly. "She just has this unwavering determination, this sense of focus where she seems to get over just about anything in order to reach a goal," says her mother. "I think I'm determined too, but I would never for a minute try to say she got that from me. I just said follow your dreams and don't look back."

X Games
After years of strategic campaigning from Burke and Leskinen, ESPN is finally adding women's ski Slopestyle to the Winter X Games.
"I'm thrilled," says Burke, "It's something I've been pushing for so many years. It was so frustrating to see women snowboarders doing straight airs when we were doing 900's and not being able to compete." The X Games offered Burke a false promise last year, prompting her to push even harder this time around. After endless emails and phone calls, Burke heard yet another "no."
"I was furious. I just kinda lost it. I almost started crying it made me so mad."

Burke kept fighting. She made more calls and sent more emails. She created a list of every girl in the field and what trick they were doing. Something worked. It's since been confirmed that women's ski Slopestyle will be an event at Winter X Games 13 and Burke plans to make this inaugural year a golden one. "People are always asking me when I'm going to wind down," says Burke. "I know I'm getting older. But I still love it and want to do well with it. Until I stop enjoying I'm just going to keep going for it one hundred percent." Nice doesn't always finish last. Burke managed to win all but one of the pipe contests she entered last season, bringing her total career tally to more than 40 wins. While some claw their way to the top in ugly desperation, Burke arrived there elegantly, delivering fresh baked cookies to everyone along the way.


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