Thursday marks a historic day in freeskiing. Women's ski halfpipe will make its Olympic debut, a fitting finale to freeskiing's first showcase at this Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
The event will also serve as a celebration of freeskiing pioneer Sarah Burke, who died Jan. 19, 2012, following a crash in the halfpipe, and to those, including Sarah, who helped pave the way for halfpipe skiing to be included in the Olympics in the first place.
My relationship with Sarah is not easy to describe. For the majority of my career, she was the person I was chasing, the one I wanted to be. As I started winning more contests, to outsiders, we may have looked like rivals. But our relationship was much more than that. Sometimes she would win events, sometimes I would win, but what united us was the desire to push each other and progress the sport we both loved.
Before there were many North American events for women's halfpipe skiers, I would travel to Europe to compete in World Cups. Sarah and her fellow Canadian teammates were always there. Our battle became less about who could take the top spot on the podium, but rather a fight that joined us in an attempt to show the International Ski Federation (FIS) that ski halfpipe was worthy of Olympic inclusion.
That mentality shifted from communal efforts to individual ones after it was announced on July 4, 2011, that ski halfpipe would officially be a part of the Olympics in 2014. Suddenly it became "how do I get there" now that the "we got there" part had been accomplished. But that mentality didn't last long.
When Sarah died, it brought everyone in the freeskiing community back to the importance of togetherness. Sarah transcended our sport and impacted people's lives well beyond skiing. Her death, tragically, united us.
Most days, even now, two years later, I still can't believe that she's gone -- there is no way to understand it. The questions keep coming: What do we do now that our leader has fallen? What do we do now that we've accepted she's not coming back?
Sarah taught us all so many lessons. Every time she picked herself up after a crash, every time she smiled when a competition didn't go her way, every mile she ran for the children of St. Jude's Hospital, it was a reflection of who Sarah was. Her purpose on this planet, it seems, wasn't merely to collect gold medals and world championship titles, it was to inspire those around her to become better people every day. The medals she won -- and she won many of them -- only added to that inspiration.
Standing atop a podium was no longer the center of my world, but trying my hardest was. I began to appreciate the little things again, to take joy in doing what I love, regardless of the outcome. Before her death, my identity and self-worth were completely dependent on being the best. Since her death, I haven't stood on a podium once, but I can honestly say I've gotten more joy out of the skiing I've done in the past 18 months than from most of the skiing I was doing before. It became so apparent to me that our results do not matter unless we matter.
If there is one thing I know for sure, Sarah was an Olympian at heart, and because of what she has taught me, so am I. Even though I won't be competing on Thursday in Sochi, I'll be watching the girls from the outside, proud of how far this sport has come and dreaming about where it has yet to go.
There is no one person who could take over Sarah's shoes, of course. Her role has had to be filled by all of the women in this sport, many of whom were coached by Sarah at some point and all of whom were inspired by her work ethic and fearless ways. And when those women drop into the halfpipe Thursday in Sochi, it will be the culmination of Sarah's life work.
Professional skier Jen Hudak has been competing in halfpipe competitions since 2002. At the first U.S. Olympic qualifier in Breckenridge, Colo., on Dec. 11, 2013, she suffered a torn ACL in her left knee after returning to competition the previous year following a right ACL injury. She did not qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, but she will be cheering for all the women competing Thursday in Sochi.