SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Canada’s coach carried Sarah Burke’s ashes down a halfpipe run and spread them on the Olympic rings to honor the freestyle skier whose tragic death robbed her of a chance to fulfill her Games dream.
Burke, a pioneer of the sport who was a driving force in getting the halfpipe event on the Sochi program, died in a training accident in 2012 at the age of 29.
But her memory has lived on at the Games. Athletes paid tribute by forming a heart with their hands or pointed to the sky as they waited for their results.
The “slippers”, whose job it is to clean the pipe, skied down in a heart formation one evening in her honor.
“I feel pretty good just knowing that Sarah, she was all over these Olympics, you know in our hearts and quite literally too,” said coach Trennon Paynter, his voice trembling with emotion.
“I carried her with me and I managed to poach a couple of pipes ... which felt really nice to know that she got to take a few hits in the Olympic pipe,” he told reporters.
Paynter has carried Burke’s ashes - sheathed in a glass cylinder and leather case printed with her name and snowflakes - to every event this season on the road to Sochi.
He was joined by the Canadian freestyle team to spread her ashes over the Olympic rings and then sneaked up the mountain before the Games began to give Burke her the Olympic moment she had so longed for.
“I just found the quietest moment that I could sneak in there and it was a beautiful day and I hiked up and down the pipe and scattered some (ashes) and then afterwards I actually went up to the very top of the mountain ... to the highest point I could find,” Paynter said.
Nearly all the athletes who spoke to reporters after competing had a word to say about Burke, although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned them from wearing stickers with her name on them.
“That was a little bit of a stealth mission,” Paynter admitted of his trip up the mountain. “It is probably not entirely following all the rules.”
Before her death, Burke had even inspired silver medalist Marie Martinod to return from retirement after the Frenchwoman had quit to raise her daughter.
“I know she is really happy for Marie to win (a medal),” Paynter said
Despite tight straits after Canada’s freestyle team lost much of its corporate funding two years ago, Burke’s compatriots have been a powerhouse in freestyle skiing winning nine medals when ski cross is factored in.
What would Burke have to say about their success in Sochi and seeing her dreams come true with the sport’s Olympic debut?
“She would just be thrilled with everything,” Paynter said.
“For her in particular seeing women’s half-pipe skiing on a world stage like that, I think would be a really powerful thing and I know she is up there very stoked right now.”
Editing by Keith Weir; additional reporting by Annika Breidthardt