Since before the days of women’s freeskiing at the Winter X Games, Canadian Sarah Burke has been lobbying for inclusion and equity. Burke, a six-time U.S. Open and two-time X Games winner, had weathered the responsibility of taking the sport into mainstream recognition alone. Until 2005, when American-born and Norwegian-raised Grete Eliassen came onto the scene to lend Burke a hand. Both compete in the halfpipe and slopestyle events, and both have a stake in the growth of their sport.
When Eliassen, a two-time X Games winner and four-time U.S. Open winner, sat down to be interviewed by Burke, the obvious camaraderie they shared erased any skepticism on if their talk of friendship was an act for the camera. In fact, neither was eager to call their competition a rivalry.
“I don’t think we really have a rivalry when we compete,” Burke said. “When Grete wins, I’d be disappointed in my performance, but I’m still happy for how she performs, and that everyone’s OK at the end of the day. If there’s anyone I’d want to win besides myself, it’d be Grete.”
Eliassen echoed Burke’s sentiments, “If Sarah wins, I win. There isn’t a day that I’d be upset if Sarah beats me because I know that she skied at her best. I could only be upset if I didn’t perform as well as I could.”
Theirs is a friendship that began shortly after Eliassen joined the tour. Eliassen had just moved back to the United States after making the switch from racing with the Norwegian ski team to competing in freeskiing. As the new kid on the block (her first tournament outside of Norway was the U.S. Open in 2004), Eliassen admits she never talked to anyone on the tour, choosing to focus entirely on developing a competitive edge. That changed after several months of practicing at about the same times as Burke.
“I’d developed this mindset from racing of always going for the win and not thinking about having fun,” Eliassen said. “But since knowing Sarah, I’ve learned to relax more. We’d put on our music and dance at the top of the pipe before performing.”
Their relationship has also taken the form of teacher-student at some point. Burke has served as Eliassen’s coach, bringing her up to speed on some of the tricks of the trade. Eliassen confessed to watching Sarah every time she’s on the slope.
“Sarah’s always at that level where someone who’s going to win a competition is at,” she said. “You never know what she’s going to pull out. I get excited watching her because when I see her do something, I’m like ‘Oh! I can do that too.’”
Burke also named Eliassen as her favorite person to watch on the tour because of her strong sense of security and bravado in tackling jumps and landing with great stability. Both athletes said they depend strongly on each other’s opinion of what tricks each plans to attempt, trusting that neither would take on any tricks that would put their lives in jeopardy.
In a sport that thrives on the thrill of pushing yourself to risky limits, both athletes know that even though they try to avoid potential ghastly tricks, injuries could still happen. Burke advised that the most important things to learn when taking up the sport are to perfect the art of falling right and how to prepare your body to take the hit. Eliassen noted the importance of taking the time to heal from injuries, instead of giving into pressure from sponsors to compete at particular events.
When Burke first started out on the tour, there were very few women competing and virtually no coverage of their events. In 2005, women’s freeskiing was included at the Winter X Games. A handful of competitions have begun awarding equal prize money to women. Both athletes are grateful for the growth the sport has experienced and see nothing but positives in the future of the sport. They cited an inclusion in the Olympic Games and an ever-increasing number of girls participating in the sport as progresses they’d like to see in five years.
The quest to promote the sport and physical activity for girls is one of the reasons they’ve partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation on various occasions. Burke, who was the recipient of the Yolanda L. Jackson Give Back Award at this year’s Annual Salute to Women in Sports, applauded the Foundation for giving girls the opportunities they need to excel in sports and to follow their dreams under the umbrella of great female athletes who are helping to support them. Eliassen, who has been known to donate all of prize money from a competition to charity, believes that the Foundation’s involvement in helping girls to become physically active is a good step to a bigger plan and said she’s only happy to be a part of the ultimate goal.
By Wandoo Makurdi
Editor’s Note: The Foundation is headed to Aspen, Col., to cheer on Burke, Eliassen and all the women competing at the Winter X Games 12. This year, the women will compete in five disciplines: SkierX, SnowboarderX, Skiing SuperPipe, Snowboarding SuperPipe and Snowboarding Slopestyle. Visit us at the Team ESPN booth from Jan. 24 to Jan. 27!