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Olympics / Sports

Sarah Burke inspired Olympic freeski movement

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- It was difficult not to cringe as Canadian freeskier Yuki Tsubota bounced off the icy slopes Tuesday at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.

It was difficult not to think of Sarah Burke, a Canadian pioneer whose campaign propelled the women's freeski movement.

"We wouldn't be here if not for her," said Canada's Dara Howell, who won the women's slopestyle gold medal Tuesday with a flying first run no one could touch.

Tsubota escaped serious injury but in a high-risk sport the question always lingers after a horrific crash.

It lingers because Burke's fatal day two years ago makes it impossible not to.

The four-time X Games champion died nine days after a training crash in Park City, Utah, a potent reminder of the dangers of flinging off jumps while attached to skis and snowboards.

Canadians came to the 2014 Winter Olympics planning to commemorate the halfpipe skier by putting Burke's name on helmets and equipment. The International Olympic Committee quashed the idea, calling it a "political statement."

Burke, who was 29 when she died, might have laughed at the irony.

"She fought so hard for this," Howell said of women's freeskiing in the Olympics.

Burke's influence extended beyond Canadian borders because the action sports athletes act more like family than rivals.

But it hits Canadians particularly hard.

"I've been feeling her all week," said bronze medalist Kim Lamarre, of Quebec City. "She carried me through my qualification."

Lamarre fell on her first of two runs in the final. Just before her medal-winning burst, she looked up and said, "Sarah, let's do this together."

"When I landed, 'Yeah, Sarah, we did it. I could not be more happy to celebrate her in such a big way."

The Canadians might have swept the medals had Tsubota not crashed. As it is, the Vancouver skier took sixth.

Devin Logan of Park City won the silver medal with .40 points more than Lamarre.

Logan, who couldn't ski part of last year while recovering from a surgically repaired knee, exhibited the fearless character of athletes introducing extreme disciplines to the Olympic menu. She doesn't like to wear protective gear because it makes her feel claustrophobic.

"I just wear my helmet," Login said "It makes me feel weird so I don't mess with it."

Howell, of Huntsville, Ontario, won Canada's fourth gold medal of the Sochi Games. This is the one she wanted for Burke.

"I can't even believe it," Howell said. "She was such an inspiration to me and every one us."

Burke, who lived near Whistler in British Columbia, dominated the ski halfpipe.

She was injured at the bottom of the same pipe where snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury during a training accident in 2009.

Burke probably would have been one of the favorites in the women's freeski halfpipe.

"She is where it all started," Howell said

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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