Sarah Burke succumbs to her injuries in Utah hospital

Word came early this afternoon from Sarah Burke's publicist that the freestyle skier with strong Whistler ties died this morning at the University of Utah Hospital.

Burke succumbed to injuries sustained nine days ago in a training accident on the Eagle Superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort. She was 29.

"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," the publicist's statement said.

"A public celebration of Sarah's life will be held in the coming weeks."

As a result of her Jan. 10 fall, Burke suffered a ruptured vertebral artery, which is one of the four major arteries supplying blood to the brain. The ruptured artery led to hemorrhage in her brain and caused her to go into cardiac arrest on the scene.

Burke was revived at the scene and hospital studies indicated that she retained function in her brainstem. The injured artery was successfully repaired during a surgery on Jan. 11.

However, subsequent tests and neurological exams revealed that Burke suffered "severe, irreversible" brain damage due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest.

The statement stresses that Burke's brain injury was not a result of trauma but due to a lack of oxygen.

"The family wishes to express their deep gratitude to Sarah's dear friends for their love and support, and for traveling to Salt Lake City to comfort the family," the statement said. "They would also like to thank the University of Utah Hospital and her physicians and care team in the Neuro Critical Care Unit for their incredible care and compassion."

Canadian Freestyle Ski Association CEO Peter Judge, whose organization oversees the national halfpipe team that Burke belonged to, extended condolences to Burke's family, teammates and coaches during a Thursday afternoon conference call.

"Certainly our hearts go out to Rory (Bushfield), her husband, and her family and to her coach Trennon Paynter, who was with her most of her time in the sport," said Judge.

Judge remembered Burke as a pioneer, an ambassador and a role model within her sport.

"Sarah was a person who, I think, in many ways was larger than life and lived life to the fullest. She was a phenomenal representative to the sport," said Judge. "I think her participation in what she chose to do transcended that sport and went into a larger realm based on who she was as a person.

"It will be a significant loss for her sport and for our community to not have her."

Judge continued: "She was one of those people that was very outgoing, very gregarious, and certainly saw her place in the world and what she was doing as being a gift and something she truly loved doing. That went all the way through everything she did - whether it was her actually out on the hill competing, or whether it was her being involved in coaching camps and working with young people, or whether it was off doing philanthropic things.

"I know charities and working with young kids and giving back were certainly things that were very close to her and very important to her. She was the kind of person who took on her athletic role and saw it as a larger responsibility."

Burke was one of the leading advocates to have halfpipe skiing added to the Olympic program and that campaign was ultimately successful, as the sport will make its debut during the 2014 Sochi Games. Judge said Burke was instrumental in seeing that goal achieved.

"She was always very articulate and intelligent in terms of what she presented the sport to be and what she presented the ambitions to be," said Judge. "As a spokesperson for her sport, she played a huge role in its acceptance."

Judge once again fielded questions about the safety of the sport and characterized Burke's fall as a "freak accident." He confirmed that Burke was attempting a flatspin 540 - during which a skier completes 1 1/2 rotations in the pipe while spinning relatively parallel to the ground - when she fell. It was a manoeuvre that she was very familiar with and not a trick that was "off-the-charts difficult."

"It's very clear that this injury was one that was more of a freak accident than it was caused by anything in specific terms," said Judge. "It seemed to be more of a fluke outcome than anything else.

"Sarah was involved significantly in terms of creating safe mechanisms, not only for her to train, but for younger kids to learn underneath her."

Burke was a four-time Winter X Games superpipe champion, a title which she would have been defending in Aspen next week.

The Question will bring you any further updates on this story as they become available.

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