"Growing up I always wanted to be just like her, not just for her skiing, but for what a great person she is," says Jen Hudak.
When she describes what Sarah Burke has meant to her, Hudak speaks for an entire generation. Burke's prowess in the halfpipe planted the seeds for the women's field that exists and continues to grow today. But it's through the warmth of her personality and her poise and confidence as an ambassador for women's sports that she has come to mean so much to skiers and nonskiers alike.
"It was such a shock," says French skier Anaïs Caradeux. "It took me a couple hours to realize what was really happening. Now every day, we get a little bit of news that we pass to each other."
Since the news of Sarah Burke's injury broke Tuesday, the social media sites Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with posts related to the skier. The Twitter hashtags #believeinsarah and #prayingforsarahburke have cropped up as conduits for fans and friends to express their grief, show their support and find out the latest on Burke's condition.
Snowboarder and fellow Winter X Games gold medalist Kelly Clark used the tags to help draw supporters to an in-person vigil that was held Friday evening in Breckenridge, Colo. According to traffic data collected by social media expert Dave Amirault, #BelieveInSarah has amassed over 2,300 tweets (and counting) from more than 1,900 unique accounts.
"It sucks to be on the outside and not know," says Hudak, "and to know there's nothing you can do."
Hudak had been training in Breckenridge the day Burke was hurt in Park City. Upon learning of Burke's injury, Hudak made a beeline back to Salt Lake City to visit her idol and rival in person at the University of Utah Hospital. At Burke's bedside, she found that there are just as many unanswered questions as in the annals of the blogosphere.
"I don't know much more from being at the hospital," says Hudak. "There's really nothing that any of us can do. It's a waiting game at this point and we have to trust that she is in good hands."
If history is any indication, Burke is, in fact, being taken care of. When skier CR Johnson and snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustained traumatic brain injuries in 2005 and 2009, respectively, each was admitted to the University of Utah hospital. Both made remarkable recoveries [it should be noted, however, that Johnson was later killed in an unrelated ski accident].
Nevertheless, both of those athletes weathered an agonizing stretch of uncertainty before making their recoveries. Safdar Ansari, MD, the neurointensivist coordinating Burke's care at the University Hospital, reminded the public of that in a statement released Friday afternoon, saying that, "At this moment, Sarah needs more time before any prognosis can be determined."
"It's hard right now to focus on training," says Caradeux. Like the rest of the women's pipe field, the French skier has spent her practice time trying to catch up with Burke. Now, she says, "I'm going to train harder than ever to try to make her as proud as I can."
Continues Caradeux, "I just wish she would wake up and say, 'Hey guys, don't worry. I'm going to be all right.'"
With Burke's condition in limbo, it's not just the lady to beat that is out of the picture. It is the linchpin -- the leadership, the motivation and the security -- of an entire sport. And as they wonder what will come of Burke, they also worry about how to go on without her.