Friday, January 20, 2012

Death of a Skier

I don't know if most Americans have ever heard of Canadian skier Sarah Burke.

Until recently, I must admit, I knew little about her myself. But, apparently, she was well known among extreme sports enthusiasts. And Burke' death dramatically alters expectations for the next Winter Olympics.

Burke, who died yesterday at the age of 29, was a freestyler who successfully lobbied to have her sport included in the Winter Olympics and was widely expected to win a medal in the sport when it makes its debut in the 2014 Winter Games in Russia. She died from injuries suffered 10 days ago in a training accident in Utah.

The death of one so young is always a tragedy, and the circumstances of Burke's death make it even more tragic. She was practicing the sport to which she had committed everything. Her commitment to it appears to have been even more binding than the marriage vows she took less than two years ago.

As I have observed, she was the driving force behind the inclusion of freeskiing in the Winter Olympics — and the ironic (and, apparently, inevitable) outcome of her death may well be a renewed and reinvigorated debate over the risks of her sport.

That may or may not be an overreaction. Burke's death is a tragedy, but from what I know of her I think she would agree that the sport has gone to great lengths to minimize the risks.

And the accident that caused her death appears to be more of a fluke than anything else. Observers say the accident occurred not on a complicated maneuver but on a routine jump that Burke had performed hundreds, if not thousands, of times before without incident.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, she landed at just the right angle to cause her fatal accident, that the odds against such a thing happening again are astronomical.

Accidents and injuries are "part of the game," Burke said. "Everybody gets hurt."

Canadian Freestyle Ski Association chief executive Peter Judge said, "[Burke] will be greatly missed by all of us at the CFSA and the entire ski community."

Burke may not have been a mainstream household name, but my guess is that the Olympic debut of the sport to which she dedicated herself will be among the most emotional of the next Winter Games.

And I predict that, in death, Burke will inspire far more people than she ever did in life.

It would be a tragedy compounding another to turn the situation into something it isn't, whatever the motivation.

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