“Celebrating Sarah” - A Fallen Skier Paves the Way For Two NorCal Olympians

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

For the majority of her life, Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke didn’t necessarily know where the sport of skiing was going, she just knew she was pushing it forward, and she did not want it to ever stop. By the time of her death at age 29, Burke had added to the progression of the sport more than any other competitive female skier who ever lived. When South Lake Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman and Carmel’s Brita Sigourney compete in their first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, they’ll be skiing in a first ever event that Burke pioneered, the Olympic Women’s Skiing Halfpipe.

From the minute Sarah Burke strapped on a pair of skis, she was always intent on taking things to the next level. Riding with the boys, seeking out the most difficult terrain, sending the biggest airs. As she got older and starting competing, she found herself constantly lobbying for the inclusion of more women in events. If there was a sponsored slopestyle event in Colorado or a halfpipe event in Utah, Sarah wanted to make sure there was a contest available for the girls as well.

“When I started (in slopestyle and halfpipe) I was the only girl,” Burke once said. “And it was always a battle, always a fight to be there.”

Using her beaming smile and undeniable aerial talent on skis, Burke slowly but surely integrated women into the mainstream competitive freestyle skiing scene throughout her twenties. She promoted ski camps in order to get other girls to try her sport, and years later would go as far as to coach her direct X Games competitors in the offseason in order to teach them new tricks and progress her sport further. Burke was hooked on the adrenaline rush of skiing down a halfpipe on skis, and she wanted as many other girls to experience it as possible with her.

For Burke, development of a women’s ski halfpipe tour to go along with a nationally televised Winter X Games event was not enough. Inevitably, the end goal was to get her sport into the Olympic Games in Sochi, and she was convinced she could pull it off. True to form, midway through 2011, it was announced that the 2014 Winter Olympics would feature the women’s ski halfpipe event. As the first girl to land a 720, 900, and 1080 in a halfpipe, it was seemingly only a matter of time before Burke would be crowned as the first Olympic gold medalist in a women’s halfpipe.

Tragically, Sarah Burke would never get a chance to appear on the Olympic medal stand she essentially built herself and sing her national anthem. Burke died on January 19, 2012, nine days after crashing during a training run on the Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah.

Not long after her death, Sarah’s husband and acclaimed skier Rory Bushfield, spoke in an interview about how Burke passed away doing what she loved to do.

“She was an amazing skier, always pushing herself. She was doing things she didn’t need to do to get a gold medal. She was doing them to push her side of the sport, like she did to get skiing halfpipe into the Olympics. Halfpipe skiing will debut in Sochi and that was her dream all along. She could have easily just won events with her stock run, but instead she was constantly learning new tricks and progressing the sport. And also getting other girls to do the same.”

Two of the women that will compete in the Olympic halfpipe event that Burke pushed so hard for are Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney. Both of which grew up skiing on the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. Bowman learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe, while Sigourney first laid tracks at Alpine Meadows. Both were flying down mountains before the age of five.

Bowman grew up in South Lake Tahoe, a stones throw from the chairlift. The daughter of two professional skiers, Bowman’s parents passed down an uncanny sense of balance and feel for the snow. Ms. Bowman was also an elite gymnast. In the end, it was a perfect recipe to produce a halfpipe skier.

But of course, when Bowman was a youngster, the idea of skiing inside a halfpipe hadn’t really taken hold for women yet, so her earliest years were spent on the alpine downhill racing team. Soon enough, however, Bowman was introduced to the new-age free skiing disciplines such as slopestyle skiing and halfpipe. It wasn’t long before she was hooked.

“I quit racing when I was thirteen,” says Bowman. “It was a little too serious for me, so I switched over and joined the freeride team at Sierra, my home mountain. I kind of fell in love with it. Just skiing with all my friends all day. It was the best. I couldn’t turn that down. I had to keep going.”

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

As a junior at South Lake Tahoe high school, Bowman was starting on her state championship soccer team, as well competing in the Winter X games on ESPN. After earning a silver medal in the 2012 X Games, Bowman has won X Games gold in the halfpipe for the past two years. Now still just 20 years old, the 5 foot 1 inch Bowman has asserted herself as one of the favorites to win Olympic gold in Sochi.

Clipping at the heels of Bowman during these Olympics, with chance to win Gold herself, will be the 24-year-old Brita Sigourney. Unlike her counterpart, Sigourney didn’t get to grow up at the base of her home mountain. Instead, she grew up five hours away in Carmel, CA. This didn’t stop Brita’s dedicated parents from getting their ski-obsessed daughter up to Alpine Meadows virtually every weekend in the winter, regardless of the traffic conditions.

Growing up closer to the beach than the mountains, Sigourney developed into an exceptional water polo player in high school, leading to an offer to play collegiately at UC Davis. So for three years of college, Brita did both. Balancing her time between the pool and the halfpipe. Soon, polo would give way to skiing and by 2011, Sigourney was a silver medalist at the X Games. The following year, she won bronze and this past year she placed 5th at X-Games in the lead up to Sochi.

For the past few years, Sigourney had to battle through a series of harsh injuries. The list includes a microfracture in her knee, broken collarbone, torn ACL, and fractured pelvis. Through all this, she has persevered.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career. And I definitely have to gather a new sort of motivation after every one I think,” said Sigourney. “I actually think I’ve benefited from each one, because it’s given me the time to step back and look at why I ski and how much I love it. Your first day on snow after so long of just rehab and gym time is the best feeling ever. It’s crazy, my mom asks me every day, and I don’t think she fully understands why I ski, because she is so heartbroken every time I get hurt. Probably more than I am.”

While Sigourney may not be America’s best chance at a gold medal, she is perhaps the most capable of throwing the biggest trick. In the 2012 Winter X Games, Brita became the first woman to land a 1080 in a full women’s halfpipe run.

Of course, the first woman to ever pull off a 1080 was Sarah Burke. If you asked Brita where she learned how to take things a step further and land one in competition, the answer is probably from working with and watching Sarah Burke.

The last qualifying event for the Women’s Ski Halfpipe event in the 2014 Olympics was recently held in Park City, Utah. Almost exactly two years removed from the accident, Bowman and Sigourney found themselves at the top of the same Eagle Superpipe that claimed Burke’s life. Bowman had already qualified, but Sigourney skied that day with her Olympic dreams still in the balance. You could say Sarah Burke had paved a new course toward Olympic dreams. Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney were at the top, ready to realize them.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.