Amy Donaldson: Sarah Burke's death a loss for all women

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

In this Feb. 5, 2011, photo, Sarah Burke, of Canada, competes in the women's halfpipe finals at the freestyle skiing world championships in Park City, Utah. Burke took fourth in the event.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — It was just a brief moment in between podium shots.

It was nothing spectacular. Nothing, I'm certain, she even remembered.

In fact, I didn't recall the conversation until I searched my notes and stories wondering if I'd ever written about Sarah Burke.

The Canadian freestyle skier was preparing to climb on top of the podium at the Winter Dew Tour at Snowbasin two years ago when she was asked by reporters if she could take a few minutes to answer some questions.

Of course, she said yes.

Not because she loved chatting with reporters — many of whom only have superficial knowledge of ski superpipe. Not because she wanted to see her name in headlines. And certainly not because anyone told her she had to do so.

I asked her the same question I'd been asking other athletes competing that weekend — men and women. Isn't it awesome that there is finally a tour where free skiers can showcase their sport for casual fans?

"This is the only stop for women," she said at the time. "(The Dew Tour) is good for the guys because they have three stops. This year they're only including us in one stop; it's kind of unfortunate."

Burke was doing what she always did when given the opportunity — advocating for the women in her sport. So when the 29-year-old skier died from injuries she sustained in a fall at Park City Mountain Resort's superpipe, I felt like we women, especially those of us who make a living in the world of sports, lost more than just a talented athlete.

There are many reasons to mourn the death of Sarah Burke.

She was a kind and gracious human being. She was a loving wife, a loyal sister and a devoted daughter.

In fact, it seemed almost trivial to add her athletic accomplishments to the list of reasons the world will miss her.

But while being able to do remarkable tricks on skis doesn't seem like an important reason to love her, to miss her, or to mourn, it is. Because Burke was able to ski so well, she gained the respect of men who decide if sponsoring, covering and staging competitions for women is worthwhile. Without the respect of those in charge, she couldn't compete at the highest levels.

When she fought for women who wanted to ski superpipe or slopestyle, she was really fighting for all of us. She was fighting for the women of ski jumping to get the same shot at Olympic glory their male counterparts have enjoyed for decades. She was fighting for her male friends who can do just about everything Shaun White does on a snowboard on skis in a superpipe but for some reason weren't included in the Olympic Games when snowboarding was in 1998.

When she asked for the opportunity to flip and twist on skis, she was really asking the world to let girls everywhere chase their dreams. Why do we let men do some things but not women? I don't know. I've never wanted to compete in a sport that didn't allow women.

But I've written about those who have. They're not asking for special privileges, just the chance to do what their brothers, fathers and boyfriends do.

Men have had endless opportunities in sports for centuries. They have well-developed leagues and countless opportunities to make a living playing sports.

Women, on the other hand, were told they shouldn't exert themselves, couldn't handle contact, and that it would cause their internal organs to fall out if they ran long distances as recently as the 1980s.

Women don't want to compete with men. Some of us will if that's the only chance we have at participating. But most of us acknowledge that puts us at a distinct physiological disadvantage.

Women want their own games, their own chance at glory. They want the benefits of battling mental and physical challenges in a way that only athletics offers.

When Sarah Burke started begging organizers to let her compete, she begged them to let all girls compete. She didn't understand why they wouldn't have a girls competition because opportunity would certainly help grow interest in the sport.

Standing on the side of that pipe too many times, and for no good reason, ignited a fire in her that couldn't be extinguished.

When she skied she did more than offer thrills to fans or win awards. She gave little girls a sports idol who looked like them. She gave women a reason to believe their daughters could achieve any goal. And maybe, most importantly, she proved that determination and hard work makes dreams reality for men AND women.

Which is why, on Jan. 19, even those of us who've never even hoped to land a 1080 on skis felt a little less, a little lost but eternally grateful.

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

twitter: adonsports

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