Top Athlete In New Olympic Sport Injured

One of the top athletes in the new Olympic sport of ski halfpipe is in critical condition in a Utah hospital. Canadian Sarah Burke, 29, was injured when she fell during a training run in Park City, Utah, earlier this week. Burke is considered a pioneer in a sport where competitors on skis do the same tricks and flips that snowboarders do — all in a super-sized halfpipe.

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One of the top athletes in the new Olympic sport of ski halfpipe is in critical condition in a Utah hospital. Twenty-nine-year-old Canadian Sarah Burke was injured when she fell during a training run in Park City earlier this week.

Burke is considered a pioneer in a sport where competitors on skis do the same tricks and flips that snowboarders do, all in a super-sized halfpipe. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In a sport where the potential is always there for spectacular crashes, Sarah Burke's fall reportedly was rather innocuous. She landed after performing a trick. According to one witness, she whiplashed onto her side. The fall tore an artery, which caused bleeding in her brain.

A hospital release yesterday said: We need to observe the course of her brain function before making definitive pronouncements about Sarah's prognosis for recovery.

Burke was injured in the same halfpipe where U.S. snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a brain injury in 2009. Those in the sport say the Park City halfpipe is one of the best. And the 22-foot walls - they used to be 18 - don't necessarily make it more dangerous.

This is U.S. ski halfpipe coach Mike Jankowski.

MIKE JANKOWSKI: It actually becomes safer, in many ways, because you have a broader area to land in.

GOLDMAN: American Jen Hudak is one of Burke's top rivals. Hudak says a big part of her sport is managing fear. And it's going to be harder in the aftermath of Burke's accident.

JEN HUDAK: I would imagine that that sits on everyone's mind. And I think especially for the girls in the sport right now, I think it's something that a lot of them are going to be considering when they're on the hill.

GOLDMAN: Hudak considers Burke a friend, and an inspiration. Burke not only was one of those who lobbied hard to get ski halfpipe into the Olympics - it'll start in 2014 - but she fought for the inclusion of women in the sport as well. Burke talked about it in the Ski Channel feature film, "Winter."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WINTER")

SARAH BURKE: It was a lot of sad calls to my parents, not understanding why I could beat half those boys but they wouldn't let me in the contest. I remember sending emails to X Games, you guys got girls yet?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Her pushing paid off. Girls got into the X Games, where Burke has won four gold medals. Burke has been considered a contender for the first Olympic gold medal in her sport.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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