Sarah Burke on why "overcoming fear is the best feeling in the world"

’It’s definitely a mental game’
Sarah Burke of Canada, reacts after failing to place in the top three finishers in the slopestyle skiing women’s final at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk Mountain outside Aspen, Colo., on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
(David Zalubowski/AP)

By now, everyone knows about Tuesday’s horrific accident that left Canadian Sarah Burke, one of the planet’s best freeskiers, in a coma in a Utah hospital, her long-term prognosis unknown.

Anyone who has watched Burke’s sport knows what incredible courage it takes to hurtle oneself into the air—particularly knowing what happens when things go terribly wrong, as they did for her longtime friend, fellow skier C.R. Johnson, who died in a horrific crash two years ago. Burke, perhaps more than most, was aware of the potential for harm.

In an eye-opening interview in Aspen last year, she spoke to Maclean’s about how fear had crept into her game. Two years earlier, she’d broken her back at the Winter X Games. That fall, it seems, had done more than just physical damage.

“I try to play off that it isn’t a big deal,” Burke told Maclean’s. “But in truth, [fear] has gotten to me. It’s rough.”

Burke hits the pipe the same way snowboaders do, spinning and flipping above its 22-foot walls, but on skis. A confluence of pressures–financial and competitive–along with a love of adventure, have increased the size of halfpipes, tossing athletes higher and higher in the air, demanding from them more difficult and dangerous tricks.

“It’s definitely a mental game,” she told Maclean’s. “And I have a really bad imagination. I can think the worst thing on a jump.”

To Burke, the gold medal she picked up at last January’s Winter X Games was her “proudest moment.” It had been “such a struggle to get back,” she explained—first the back, then surgery to repair a shoulder injury.

Burke left Aspen reassured—physically, she was back on top. An Olympic gold at Sochi was well within her reach.

There was only one thing left to beat, she told Maclean’s. And she was learning to combat her fear. She had a method.

“I have to picture the jump in my head, and know I can do it.” Still, she acknowledged, “It’s always scary.”

“But the feeling I get after I land it? It’s worth it.”

“Being scared,” she added, “is a good thing. But overcoming it is the best feeling in the world.”

At this point, it is still too early to tell what lies ahead for the Canadian athlete.

The Utah hospital caring for her announced today that a tear to an artery that had caused bleeding between her skull and brain has been successfully repaired. For now, Burke remains in a self- medically induced coma.

Tears like the one she suffered, however, can disrupt blood flow to the brain, and, in serious cases, can cause brain damage, even death.

Only after observing brain function in the days ahead will the neurosurgeon caring for Burke, William Couldwell, make any “definitive pronouncements about Sarah’s prognosis for recovery.”

For Burke’s family, her friends and many fans, it is a waiting game, agonizing, cruel, unending to those who love her best.