By Doug Russell Special to Published Jan 20, 2012 at 11:00 AM

Sarah Burke was the total package.

Model good-looks, a million-dollar smile, a pioneering spirit and the adoration of fans worldwide made her one of the singular stars of her sport.

On Jan. 10, Sarah had just completed a 540-degree "flat spin" on the U-shaped super pipe when her landing went haywire. She appeared to trip over her skis and fell on her head, suffering a torn vertebral artery that resulted in massive hemorrhaging in her brain. All of the intracranial bleeding internally caused her brain to suffocate, a condition clinically called hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.

Thursday morning, nine days after the crash in Park City, Utah, Sarah Burke's life support was turned off after doctors relayed the grim news to her family and grieving husband of just 15 months that her brain had, in effect, been destroyed in the crash. As per her family's wishes, before she died, her organs were harvested for transplant in the effort to help save other's lives. It was her final, heroic act.

Burke was just 29 years old.

People, perhaps to make themselves feel better when someone dies doing their life's work say things like "well, that's how (insert name here) would have wanted to die."


I love writing sports columns. I love talking sports on television and radio. But the last thing I want to be doing when I pass into the afterlife is sitting behind my computer, microphone and for heaven's sake, not in front of a television camera for the entire world to see. I would prefer to slip away peacefully on a tropical beach in about 60 or so years, give or take.

I seriously doubt Sarah Burke wanted to die on the slopes she loved so much, despite statements made to the contrary. After all, what else is a world class athlete supposed to say when faced with such an abstract question? After all, she thought she was invincible.

Burke, like all of us, had a lot of future plans that she wanted to accomplish. She had fought so incredibly hard for freestyle skiing to be included in the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and was considered the favorite to win gold, just as she had done four times at the X Games. Two years ago, with the Olympics in her own backyard, it would have been a story that would have written itself. Burke did not need the publicity, for she was already a household name in her native Canada. But winning gold in Vancouver would have made her a national hero.

Tragically, she will never get the chance to bring Gold home from Russia, as she had so longed to do.

Unfortunately, however, she is hardly the only athlete to die on the field of play performing a sport that has so many inherent dangers.

Only three months ago, two-time (and current) Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon died on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway track following an horrific crash that unlike Burke's, was live on national television for all the world to see. Of course it was shocking, but hardly unprecedented.

At almost every turn, athletes such as Burke and Wheldon were asked about the inherent dangers of their respective sport. Perhaps in a statement to either their success, blissful ignorance, or some combination of both, those concerns were routinely dismissed with a statement resembling a laugh and a shrug.

"We know how to crash," Burke told ABC's Sam Champion on "Good Morning America" in 2010 when he had inquired about the sport's safety in the wake of snowboarder Kevin Pearce's near-fatal injury just weeks earlier. Pearce hit his head on the half pipe while completing a stunt and remained in a coma for several weeks. It was only weeks ago that he returned to the slopes, but only as a casual participant; his competition days are over.

Kevin Pearce was injured on the exact same Park City half pipe on which Burke suffered her fatal injuries.

On the day of the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a practice run down the Whistling Sliding Centre. His accident was just 43 days after Pearce's, and happened less than 40 miles from Burke's home.

Wheldon, like Burke, knew the risks of his sport. The week leading up to the Oct. 16 final race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway there were concerns over the safety of the track. However, under the guise of it being one of the fastest, most exciting tracks Indy cars could drive on, nothing was actually done about those concerns.

In his regular blog that he contributed to USA Today, Wheldon wrote "This is going to be an amazing show. The two championship contenders, Dario Franchitti and Will Power, are starting right next to each other in the middle of the grid. Honestly, if I can be fast enough early in the race to be able to get up there and latch onto those two, it will be pure entertainment. It's going to be a pack race, and you never know how that's going to turn out."

Wheldon's words were eerie in their premonition.

After the disaster, fellow driver Oriol Servia said while he grieved, he wasn't shocked there was a catastrophe: "We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat," he said. "We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."

Like skiing, auto racing has had its share of fatalities as well. The most famous of which was Dale Earnhardt, killed during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, but in fact there have been more than 400 other documented deaths on auto racetracks.

What is it that pulls athletes toward potentially fatal sports?

Perhaps it is the adrenaline rush that they get from knowing that they are defying death literally with every turn. Perhaps it the satisfaction of the ability to perform a stunt that mere mortals can only dream of.

It is one thing to have skydiving on your bucket list. For the vast majority of us, that is a once (or in my case, twice) in a lifetime thrill. The adrenaline rush that one gets from staring down your own mortality and emerging without a scratch apparently is addicting as the most powerful drug.

For elite speed athletes, their livelihood puts their very existence at risk but they so willingly do it without a second thought. For the American spectator, maybe it is that element of danger that draws us in. Perhaps part of the very appeal of watching extreme sports is the knowledge that someone could die. Not that sane people root for that tragic outcome by any means, but as we have seen time and time again, tragedies happen in these sports that just don't happen in others.

Unlike brutal contact sports like boxing (almost 20 documented deaths from injuries sustained during fights) or football (at least 10 documented deaths from injuries sustained during games) skiing is not supposed to involve contact. It is the ultimate test of man (or woman) vs. themselves. "What can I do that no one has ever seen before?"

In the case of Burke, no one had ever seen another woman do what she could do. By all accounts, the stunt she was attempting, the 540 degree "flat spin" was one she had perfected countless times before. Even when she landed, while it was a bit awkward, it did not have the initial appearance of being anything other than just another routine spill.

But as we have seen on the slopes with the deaths of Sonny Bono, football legend Doak Walker, actress Natasha Richardson, RFK's son Michael Kennedy, and even skiing legend Ulrike Maier, the sport – even when it is just recreational – can be dangerous and even fatal.

Sarah Burke worked her entire short adult life trying to gain acceptance for her sport. While she accomplished much of that with its inclusion into the Sochi Olympics, the sport she forever enriched is so much worse off without her in it.

And perhaps she might say that is the biggest tragedy of all.

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.