Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke dies at 29

Thu Jan 19, 2012 8:25pm EST

1 of 5. Canada's Sarah Burke celebrates after winning the Ladies' halfpipe freestyle FIS World Cup Grand Finals 2008 in Chiesa Valmalenco March 12, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo

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(Reuters) - Top Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, an early gold medal favorite ahead of the 2014 Olympics, died at a Utah hospital on Thursday from injuries she suffered in a training fall. She was 29.

Burke, one of the top half-pipe athletes in the world and an ambassador for freestyle skiing who lobbied hard for the sport to be part of the Olympics, died at the Salt Lake City hospital where she was taken last week following the accident.

"Sarah passed away peacefully surrounded by those she loved. In accordance with Sarah's wishes, her organs and tissues were donated to save the lives of others," family spokeswoman Iris Yen said in a written statement released to Reuters.

Burke, a pioneer in her sport and a popular athlete who was married to fellow skier Rory Bushfield, fell on the Eagle Superpipe after performing a trick known as a Flat Spin 540, according to the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association.

Peter Judge, the ski association's chief executive, said the injury was due to "freak accident" that occurred after Burke had performed a trick that was well within her capabilities.

"Our hearts go out to Sarah's husband Rory and her entire family. It's difficult for us to imagine their pain and what they're going through," Judge said.

Yen said in her statement that Burke suffered a ruptured vertebral artery in the fall, which led to a severe intracranial hemorrhage and caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

The world-class athlete had surgery at the hospital to repair that artery, but remained in critical condition and apparently did not regain consciousness before her death.

BURKE 'TRULY LOVED' SPORT

"After the operation, numerous neurological examinations, electrodiagnostic tests and imaging studies revealed that Sarah suffered severe irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest," Yen said.

"While early reports in the media stated that Sarah's injury was a traumatic brain injury, it is important to note that Sarah's condition was the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain during cardiac arrest," she said.

Judge called Burke a "phenomenal representative of her sport" whose death would hit the freestyle skiing community hard.

Burke reached the podium at every career World Cup start and is a four time champion at the X-Games, according to the ski association.

"She was one of those people who was very outgoing, very gregarious and someone who saw what she was doing as being a gift, something she truly loved," he said.

He dismissed suggestions by a reporter that the fatal accident should prompt questions over the safety of freestyle skiing.

"Certainly there's an element of risk in any sport," Judge said.

Freestyle skiing is set to make its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. Burke was viewed as a top gold medal contender.

Yen said Burke, who grew up in Midland, Ontario and lived in Squamish, British Columbia with her husband, had been training for upcoming winter events at the time of the accident.

The spokeswoman said her family "was moved by the sincere and heartfelt sympathy expressed by people inspired by Sarah from all around the world."

A public celebration of Burke's life would be held in the coming weeks, she added.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Burns)

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