Sarah Burke is a superstar. As a 15-year-old from Midland, Ontario, she competed in moguls for the Ontario Ski Team. At 17, Burke switched to freeskiing and was throwing 1080s and winning the U.S. Open of Freeskiing, all before she reached 18. That was 10 years ago.
These days, her resume speaks volumes about her place at the top of the sport: six Winter X Games medals, an ESPY Award winner for best female action sports athlete, a FIS Superpipe World title, and she became the first and only female to land a 1080 in competition. However, upon meeting the Squamish-based skier, the last word that enters your mind is "superstar." Rather, Burke comes across as the girl next door, a friendly face who seems more in line with your best friend's good looking sister than the most legendary female park skier of all time. Like I said, a superstar.
She's also a warrior. In 2003, Burke tore her MCL competing in the U.S Open Halfpipe. She followed this injury up a week later with a shredded meniscus in her other knee. Despite competing on knees akin to a retired NFL running back, at the end of the season Burke, or Burkey as her friends call her, finished on the podium of four out of the five comps she entered.
"Injuries are definitely part of the game and I feel like I'm really good at crashing and getting hurt," Burke says. "Going into an event if you're hurt, you just put your best face forward. You just focus on what you've got to do and everything else just blurs away until you get to the bottom."
That tenacity is needed in a sport where athletes are required to nudge the line a little further every year. After lobbying hard for the inclusion of women's Slopestyle in the 2009 Winter X Games, Burke slapped her back on a 900 attempt and suffered a season-ending injury. A year later, in January 2010, she returned to compete in Winter X Superpipe and, for the first time in a long time, she left the X Games without any hardware, placing sixth.
"Last year, my performance was not top notch for me," she admits. "I was struggling with my tricks and I just wasn't having my season. I still had a good time and was happy to be there."
Last July, she underwent surgery on her right shoulder and she had to take six months off from training. At a charity ski event in December 2010, I asked Burke if she was ready for competition season. She laughed and told me she hadn't even started training for it, despite the fact that the Winter X Games was a month and a half away. Just two weeks before Winter X, Burke's doctor cleared her for training.
"I didn't have much time to train, but I knew what I wanted to do. I did a lot of rehab and a lot of visualizing," she says. "I tried to go in [to Winter X] being happy to be there and happy to be back. That was the main focus, not so much winning and the prize money. It served well."
Served well indeed. Burke returned to Winter X Games 15 this January in Aspen with a vengeance, winning the Superpipe competition with a corked 900, 720 and back-to-back flairs, and showing the women's field that inverts are not exclusively for the men. The victory signaled to the world that Burke was back and not leaving anytime soon. "It feels great," Burke said after her win in Aspen, "and all it took was nine hard days of training."
This Friday, Burke will compete in the Winter X Europe Superpipe, an event she placed sixth in last year. This year, she's free from injury and as amped as she's ever been. "I'm here with a vengeance and hoping to get back on the podium," she says.
The time off, Burke says, may be exactly what she needed. "Last year, I had so many competition results not go my way and I was a little burnt out," she says. "But getting my shoulder fixed and being forced to sit out in the fall gave me the fire to ski. Everyday that I've been out now, I've been enjoying every single moment of it."