*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."
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.
Perhaps 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."
Jessica 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."
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.
"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."
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.