KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Somewhere Sarah Burke is smiling. It has been more than two years now since the Canadian freestyle skiing pioneer died in a training accident. But her legacy is here at the Sochi Olympics – in the new halfpipe event for which she lobbied the IOC, in the medals won by those she touched.
Dara Howell threw down one of the best runs in women’s ski slopestyle history Tuesday, and after she won the first Olympic gold in the event, she dedicated it to Burke. Kim Lamarre won bronze months after suffering a torn knee ligament and losing her place on the Canadian team, and she said Burke helped her do it.
Canada is cleaning up in Sochi, especially in this sport. Through the first four days medals have been awarded, Canada has four golds and nine medals – and three of those golds and six of those medals have come in freestyle skiing.
“This medal is definitely for Sara,” Howell said. “She pushed the sport so much. She always wanted to see the progression, to see girls throwing kind of like the guys were throwing, always had a smile on her face and loved what she did. Today, I feel like that’s what I did.”
“I always see her smile in my mind,” Lamarre said. “That’s one of my fondest memories – how happy she looked and how that smile was contagious. I think that was the most important thing to remember from this girl. She was beautiful from the outside. But man, was she beautiful from the inside.”
Howell is here because of Burke. Howell grew up in a skiing family in the Ontario cottage country community of Huntsville, but alpine racing bored her. She tried figure skating, but all she liked were the jumps. At 15, she decided she was going to be just like Burke and took up freestyle, and for the first time, she found a sport that brought out her talent and held her attention.
The other day, Howell said she hoped a Canadian would win gold in freestyle for Burke. She had no idea it would be her.
After training on soft, comfy snow Monday, the skiers arrived at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Tuesday morning to find icy, fast conditions. As the day progressed, icy and fast turned to slushy and slow.
Skiers crashed all over the place, including Canadians Kaya Turski and Yuki Tsubota. Turski, an X Games star recovering from a torn ACL and dealing with an illness, fell on both her qualifying runs and didn’t make the final. She suffered a separated shoulder. Tsubota fell on her second run in the final, her knee smashing into her chin. She was carried off by medics and went to the hospital. Team leader Peter Judge said the initial assessment was an injury to her jaw, but she needed X-rays and other tests.
Even Howell and Lamarre had trouble. Howell said she was so bad in pre-race training, she felt like she was “really good at scuba diving.” Scuba diving? “I was soaked,” she said. “I just fell a lot. It’s so slushy. The snow’s so wet.”
Frankly, you held your breath. This is a crazy sport, with skiers flying down the course of rail and jump features, twisting and turning forwards and backwards, trying to impress a panel of judges. The way it was going, there was a fear something really bad could happen.
Howell, though, spun it into a positive.
“Everybody loves spring skiing,” she said. “The course worked for me.”
Her first run was incredible, especially considering the Olympic pressure, her poor training runs and the conditions. She showed flawless execution and flow, and she did it after increasing her degree of difficulty recently – adding a jump with 2 1/2 spins. Her score: a whopping 94.20. She is only 19.
“At this point in time,” Judge said, “I think it’s one of the most exceptional runs that’s ever been done by a girl.”
If you think that’s Canadian bombast, consider this quote from the silver medalist, the United States’ Devin Logan, whose best score was an 85.40.
“I was happy to lose to her,” Logan said. “Getting second? She deserved it today.”
The best news? Her first run was so good that she didn’t need to go all out on her second because only the best score counts. The course was getting worse, and her father could see it. He was happy she took it easy and coasted to victory. “I just wanted her safe,” said her father, Doug Howell. “She just played. She was just having some fun with it, so it was awesome.”
Lamarre knows the dangers. She has suffered multiple ACL tears and missed large chunks of time recovering. She suffered her last one a little over a year ago. At the time, she was 24, and she had won only one medal at a major event – a bronze at the 2011 X Games in Europe. Canadian officials essentially gave up on her. “We kind of looked at it and went, ‘You know, look, it’s going to be tough for you to come back. We need to focus on the medal-potential people,’ ” Judge said.
Though she wasn’t surprised, she refused to give up. Her grandmother Ginette Seguin had competed in alpine skiing in 1956 at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and as a child, she used to wear her grandmother’s Olympic outfits around the house in Quebec City. “I was like, “Screw this. I have a chance. I’m going to keep putting my heart into it and give my everything. I know I can do this,’ ” she said.
Lamarre recovered. She paid for her own training and travel. She finished second at the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colo., in December. Canadian officials put her back on the team, and now, at age 25, here she was in her first Olympics. She crashed on her first run in the final but put up an 85.00 on her second – just .40 behind Logan and a full 8.00 ahead of the next-closest competitor.
“To make it to the Olympics is kind of a nice exclamation point to my return, but now winning a medal, it just makes this magical story even better,” she said. “I can’t believe it. It’s awesome.”
“She was still medal potential,” Judge said. “So she proved us wrong, and I love to be wrong.”
How did it happen? Lamarre pointed to Burke.
“I’ve been feeling her all week,” she said. “I feel she carried me through the qualification. And then I fell on my first run in finals, and right before I dropped in [the second time], I looked up, and I’m like, ‘Sarah, let’s do this together.’ When I landed, I was like, ‘Yeah, Sarah, we did it.’ I was so happy. I could not be more honoured to do this and celebrate her in such a big way. I’m very stoked. Yeah, Sarah.”