----written January 2012
My kids learned to ski in the late 1990’s. Snowboarding was BIG. We had to twist their arms and offer all sorts of deals to sign them up for ski team. They could snowboard after they learned to ski was the deal we struck in a Monty Hall sort of way. Door #1 was skiing, doors #2 & #3… who cared? We knew they’d be hooked once they got it.
I don’t know that there was anyone more stoked than my husband, Tim, save CR Johnson himself, when he landed the 1440 in 1999. “YES!” was the cry heard ‘round the ski world from Tim and legions of skiers like him. Skiing was going to go where snowboarding had already gone. The tricks – the flips – the air. It had seemed impossible on skis… yet brave, young, pioneering people were making it happen. They were breathing new life into a sport increasingly identified by people(?) like the old dude we used to see in church – with his 70’s era stretch pants and the duct taped hem.
We’ve been fortunate to live in North Lake Tahoe for nearly 20 years. It’s a lovely place. The scenery breathtaking, the mountains formidable, the people like no other. Our kids, much to my husband’s relief, all ski. Not a knuckle dragger in the bunch. Squaw Valley is and has always been their home mountain. I don’t think any of us could count how many days they’ve logged. They dropped into Dead Tree when their helmets were bigger than they were; skied The Fingers when puberty was barely knocking at their doors.
Our kids are now 20, 18 and 15, respectively.
They’ve been to more funerals in their short lives than I ever care to attend.
Sarah Burke won’t be memorialized at the Olympic Valley Inn, I’m sure. But it doesn’t really seem to matter (make a difference)--the whole freestyle/freeride community is mourning in a way that makes it seem as if she were a local. Her own community, I’m sure, is reeling.
The ski community is small. The Freestyle community is smaller still. It’s not unusual to watch an Olympic Event or the X Games and see a slew of familiar faces. If they’re not local, they’re people you know from competitions, from ski camps, from your life as a comrade.
For lack of a better term, the funeral march started for our family at Squaw, when a local ski coach, Randy Davis, was killed in an avalanche on Christmas day, 2008. A few months later, in 2009, it was Shane McConkey. A little less than a year later, it was CR Johnson. In the summer of 2011, a Utah Olympic aerialist, Jeret “Speedy” Peterson took his own life. Today, it is Canadian Sarah Burke we mourn for. While none were close friends, they were either familiar faces in the locker room or more importantly, role models. People my children looked up to. Athletes who gave advice, a slap on the back, or maybe only signed a poster. Skiers they hoped to emulate one day – in both their professional and personal lives.
They are all gone.
The vehicles, helmets and bikes at our house are all littered with tributes to them. We feel like we need to peel the stickers off when we sell a car in order to remember what they meant to us.
As outsiders, their deaths, in many ways, have shaped us more than their lives did.
The risks, the pride, the supreme highs, the dangerous lows… we have lived them within our community.
If I hear, one more time, that these people died in their way, doing what they loved, or lived a full life in their 20+ years, I might pull my toenails out with some rusty pliers. I guess we tell ourselves what we must to make sense out of the nonsensical.
Not one of those men or women will ever blow out 40 candles on their birthday cake. Not a one will face middle age. Is that tragic?
At the ripe old age of 45, I say, yes. Incontrovertibly, yes. And I’m sure their parents, their spouses, and even their children would scream ‘yes’ right along with me.
While I, and thousands of others, celebrate the sport and the advances and gains it continues to make, my heart breaks for another young, beautiful and talented life cut short. No trick seems worth that hefty price.