Sarah Burke remembered by those who loved her the most
When his wife’s name was mentioned the first time, Rory Bushfield smiled, a small soft smile, because she was being called “a woman who literally transformed her sport forever,” and he was so proud of her for that. The second time she was mentioned, Bushfield’s head dropped and he closed his eyes, just for a second, because they were talking about the accident, and that was the worst thing that had ever happened to him.
“You just take it day by day, man,” said Bushfield, after his late wife, Sarah Burke, was inducted in the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. “I just think of what Sarah would do, what I would want Sarah to do, and I do that. It seems right.”
It has been eight months since Sarah fell on a routine training run in Utah, eight months and three days, and there is still plenty of wreckage left behind. She was a freestyle skiing pioneer who helped push her sport into the Olympics, and she was adored by her friends and her family and her husband, and she died at 29. And on this day in downtown Toronto, alongside inductees like Daniel Igali, Beckie Scott, Jean-Luc Brassard, and Scott Niedermayer, the people Sarah left behind got to remember her again, and had to remember her again.
“I just remember holding her within seconds of her being born, and holding her hand on her last breath, and everything in between was perfect,” said her father, Gordon Burke, his eyes drooping and bright. “I’m not saying this now because she’s not here, or because memories are different or anything, but it’s just as her dad I was always stunned by the amount of what she sought to do for everybody.
“I never had a bad day in my life with her. It truly was like something magical fell into our lives. It left a little too soon, but she was just awesome every day.”
Her mother, Jan Phelan, told the the story of cooking in the kitchen when she heard four-year-old Sarah tumbling down the stairs, crash-crash-bang, and she ran to check on her daughter and Sarah was getting up, and said, “I meant to do that.” Rory remembered how last week, at the ski camp at Whistler where Sarah had created a Girls’ Week, the kids would go silent when her name came up, all these girls, instantly reverential. All three of them tried to explain what they had lost.
“It breaks your heart,” said her mother, an artist who separated from Sarah’s father when they were young, and who moved to Squamish in 2008 to be closer to Sarah and Rory. “I know I run away from home. I keep going away, and I know I’m going back soon, but … there’s a part of you that wants to sink into the despair and sorrow of it, and it would be so easy to do.
“But you would be doing a disservice to Sarah, to everybody. So you figure out a way to get through the next week, get through the next few days, get through the next month. Something you can deal with rather than looking at the whole expanse of life without Sarah. You can’t go there.”
Jan shudders when she says the last few words. Rory is the same; it’s like he can’t talk too deeply about Sarah because he might shudder and break, but he does his best. They lived in a world of mountain biking and hiking, skiing and daring, backcountry and bush planes. They were married in 2010, and they looked beautiful and young and limitless, and he was the luckiest man in the world.
On this day Rory was dressed all in black — slightly rumpled black dress shirt, black pants, black shoes. And he wore a button on his chest and this little purple ribbon pinned to his sleeve. Purple was Sarah’s favourite colour. The button had her picture on it. He carries her around a lot, literally and figuratively. He had never really lost anybody before.
“No, I haven’t, man,” he said. “That was the toughest part; I mean, I’m so blessed with my life, and so lucky to do everything that I get to do, and Sarah — as you can tell, [she] is the most amazing girl ever. I just basically … I had it all.”
Then it was gone, and it has been a long road alone. Rory, an extreme skier, has spent some time running away in his own fashion: touring Australia as part of an extreme-sports traveling show called The Nitro Circus, skiing in Nepal as part of a film. He is trying not to say no when people ask him to do things, because she wouldn’t want him to say no. It took him a while to do anything after she died, but he is distracting himself, when he can. He thought about her the first time he was back on skis, back in a dangerous place. He didn’t stop.
“Sarah passed away doing what she loved to do, and to be honest, that’s what I want to do,” Rory said. “To be able to give it your all, and live completely in the moment, absolutely. I don’t know. Absolutely it crosses your mind that it’s dangerous, but every risk is weighed, and it’s always worth it.”
His old roommate — their old roommate — just came back to Squamish and moved back in, and that helps. Rory is working on Sarah’s soon-to-be-launched foundation, and tries to ignore the rain, and goes for hikes that he and Sarah used to enjoy. He takes Duckster.
“Sarah and I had a dog, and I’m so thankful,” Rory said, “because I never wanted a dog, and Sarah brought Duckster in. I love dogs, but we travelled so much, and she always wanted a dog. She waited until I was concussed, and then gave me this dog. She said, ‘He was abandoned, under a car. We could take him to the pound.’ ” He gave in. He laughed. “So happy to have him.”
He was asked if this year has made him stronger, and said he doesn’t know. It was suggested that this was a terrible, beautiful day; having to remember, getting to remember, but Rory smiled. “A beautiful day,” he said. Jan murmured agreement; Gordon nodded. A beautiful day. They walked out laughing at something, all three of them, trying not to break without the one person who brought them together.