All Sarah Burke ever wanted to do was have fun skiing, win the Olympics and help her sport grow.
Now, the 29-year-old Canadian freestyle skier lies comatose in critical condition at University Hospital in Salt Lake City, following surgery Wednesday to treat the serious head injury she suffered in a crash in the superpipe at the Park City Mountain Resort.
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Her prognosis is unknown.
But friends and fans buried social media sites with get-well wishes for one of the best skiers in the world, a pioneering icon in her sport who was revered in the ski and snowboard community for her spirit and dedication long before her devastating injury.
Burke “in many ways defines the sport,” said Peter Judge, the CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.
That’s because Burke has spent years not only competing at the top of ski superpipe — similar to snowboarding’s halfpipe competition, except on skis — but also pushing for gender equity within the sport and lobbying hard to get it included in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
She was considered a top medal contender, as a four-time gold medalist at the Winter X Games.
Burke began skiing when she was 5 years old, near her home in a small town in Ontario.
In a documentary film project produced last year by The Ski Channel, Burke recalled traveling with her father to competitions around Canada as a teenager, hoping to convince organizers to let her compete and “not understanding why I could beat half those boys, but they wouldn’t let me in the contests.”
She also joked about repeatedly e-mailing the organizers of the Winter X Games, asking them when they would allow women to compete in her sport.
“Every female skier owes a debt of gratitude to Sarah Burke,” the narrator says.
But Burke also knew the dangers of twisting and spinning high into the air and trying to land safely on the ice sides of the halfpipe.
“You’re going to take a lot of crashes learning and perfecting things,” she told CBC Sports last year. “That’s something that you kind of know as you go into it.”
The words sound haunting now, with her life in the balance.
Doctors performed surgery on Wednesday afternoon, according to hospital vice president Chris Nelson, though further details were not available.
Earlier in the day, Burke was in an induced coma with a breathing tube in her throat, according to Safdar Ansari, a neurointensivist with University of Utah Health Care. That’s standard protocol for treating a serious brain injury, said Robert Foxford, the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association’s team doctor.
Burke’s family was with her in the hospital’s Neuro-Critical Care Unit, according to her publicist, and wanted “to express their sincere thanks to everyone, all over the world, for their heartfelt thoughts, prayers, and well wishes.”
Her husband, fellow freestyle skier Rory Bushfield, said Burke is a “very strong young woman and she will most certainly fight to recover,” according to a statement.
It’s unclear exactly what happened Tuesday.
Burke somehow fell after landing a trick near the end of the superpipe during a personal sponsor event that Judge said “wasn’t an activity we were directly involved in,” which is why Canadian officials had few details. Judge said he was told Burke “kind of bounced” from her feet to her head, in an accident that did not look as bad as it turned out to be.
After being attended to by medical staff at the scene, Burke was airlifted off the mountain and taken to the hospital.
Burke’s was the second serious injury suffered by an elite athlete on the Park City superpipe in two years; American snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a serious brain injury barely a month before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Judge praised Burke for having been involved in her sport “since the very, very early days” of its evolution, and for always being willing to encourage young skiers and help the sport grow.
“My dream was always to win the Olympics,” Burke said in the documentary. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Tribune reporters Bob Mims and Sheena McFarland, and the Associated Press, contributed to this report.