Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke crashed while training on the 22-foot Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah, and is reportedly in a coma and in critical condition a day after being airlifted to a Salt Lake City hospital.
In a statement released by University of Utah physician Safdar Ansari, Burke “sustained serious injuries and remains intubated and sedated.” Her prognosis is unknown but she is reported to have hit her head while attempting to land a trick. Chris Nelson, assistant vice president for public affairs at the hospital, revealed that Burke had surgery Wednesday afternoon.
Canadian Freestyle Ski Association CEO Peter Judge said the severity of Burke’s injury is not yet known.
“The thing with head injuries, and even comas, is that they can be very deceiving. A coma could be something that’s quite mild, and you come out of in a certain period of time, or it can be significant. At this point, it’s pretty speculative to try and pin exactly what it is, or what the implications of it are.”
Burke is widely considered the foremost pioneer for her main sport of freestyle halfpipe. She lobbied aggressively to have it included in the Winter Olympics, where it will debut at the 2014 Sochi Games.
The 29-year-old, four-time Winter X Games gold medalist had been scheduled to defend her 2011 title later this month in Aspen, Colo. Burke was also named 2007’s Best Female Action Sports Athlete at that year’s ESPY Awards.
Fans and members of the skiing and snowboarding community have flooded Burke’s Facebook page and tweeted @sarah_j_burke well-wishes.
U.S. competitor Jen Hudak told USA Today “All of the women, and men for that matter, in freeskiing love and respect Sarah. She broke ground and opened so many doors for all of us. This is a very scary moment in women’s freeskiing, freeskiing as a whole really. But if there is anyone that can pull through this, it is Sarah. The whole world is behind her .”
Burke’s publicist, Nicole Wool, issued this statement: “At this time, her family is asking that everyone respect their wishes of making Sarah’s health and recovery a priority. The family will send an update once they have all the information. They are with her now.”
Burke’s husband, Rory Bushfield, told the Vancouver Sun: “Sarah is a very strong young woman and she will most certainly fight to recover.”
Snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustained a traumatic brain injury after a fall on the same halfpipe while training for the 2010 Olympics. Now 24, Pearce was considered a primary rival to snowboarding star Shaun White until his accident. After weeks in a coma and months in various hospitals, Pearce is still undergoing rehabilitation for his balance, eyesight and memory.
The Vermont native got back on a snowboard last month for the first time since the accident. The parallels between the two accidents are unavoidable. Pearce’s near fatal injury and Burke’s condition are putting the spotlight on safety in the world of extreme sportsl. Have halfpipes become too large and the tricks performed in them too dangerous?
Park City’s pipe is notoriously steep and the slick sides and quick transitions pose a great deal of potential danger. The superpipe hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics men’s and women’s snowboard halfpipe events and the 2011 FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships halfpipe competition.
The LA Times reports: “There were about 446,788 sports-related head injuries that were treated at hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. in 2009, according to an American Assn. of Neurological Surgeons study that used data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s up 95,000 from the year before, and most mainstream sports, such as cycling, baseball, water sports and basketball saw increases in injury rates.
All athletes, particularly those involved in action sports, are well aware of the risks. They take precautions, wearing helmets and even working with air bags to practice landings. Unfortunately, it’s not always enough. We wish Sarah a speedy recovery and our thoughts are with her friends and family during what must be an extremely difficult time.