Fitting Olympic tributes to Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic

Canadian winter athletes Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic both lost their lives a month apart in 2012....

Canadian winter athletes Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic both lost their lives a month apart in 2012. (Reuters/QMI Agency/Files)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:10 PM ET

KRASNAYA POLYANA. RUSSIA - In the morning of a golden day for Canadian sport, the men wore imitation denim, a tribute in fabric to a teammate gone too soon.

And hours later, after Jennifer Jones had won gold and before Marie-Philip Poulin became a household name, under the bright lights of night, the men who groom the halfpipe course came down the mountain and — with marching-band precision — formed a giant heart on the snow.

It was a stirring tribute, another goodbye for a fallen Canadian athlete, gone before her time.

They were both 29 years old when they died — Sarah Burke and Nik Zoricic.

And it was hard not to cry — the athletes did, some of us did — when talking about the two Canadian skiers who died a month apart in 2012 while doing their extreme sports: They were leaders of substance, friends to everyone, from two different extreme disciplines new to the Olympics, one of them killed in practice, the other killed while racing by a wayward fence.

The impact of their deaths has profoundly affected their sports and athletes in them.

Burke died in January of 2012. She was four months older than Zoricic, who died in March. Her sport — of which she not was not just athlete and performer, but a pioneer — made its Olympic debut Thursday, and never would have been here had she not been the political force to push it through.

“Sarah inspired us on snow and off snow,” said gold-medal winner Maddie Bowman of the United States. “I think she would have been very proud (today). I sure hope I and everyone else made her proud because we would not be here without here.”

Zoricic’s event, the ski cross race, was not making its Olympic debut. It is among the wildest, most frantic and most exciting of all Olympic events:

It is dash and crash and wham and bam, with skiing and racing and jumping in between. And Thursday, David Duncan believed he was headed for the podium, inspired by Zoricic, inspired by his own success on the world stage. But the Canadian men of ski cross didn’t meet their own goals. That was their doing.

They still got a chance to honour their friend.

They wore ski pants that looked like blue-jeans. It wasn’t anything like the sticker the halfpipe skiers wanted to wear in tribute to Burke — the sticker that the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t allow. This was something the IOC couldn’t do anything about.

“The jeans are a salute to Nik,” said Duncan. “In one of his first ski cross races ever, Nik raced in blue-jeans when he couldn’t come up with a pair of ski cross pants. Having (what looks like) jeans, it’s just a way to always have him with us.

“He’s with us every day. We’ve got the blue-jeans on as a salute to him. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. He’s always with us. We don’t go out and do any cheer before or anything like that. But yeah he’s always with us.”

Said the fourth-place finisher, Canadian Brady Leman: “Losing Nik, that’s your worst nightmare come true. But it hasn’t made me more afraid. I think it’s made me more aware ... I’m definitely more aware of what can go wrong.”

Sarah Burke wasn’t just close with her Canadian teammates, even though she had a profound impact on Roz Groenewoud, whom she was both friend and mentor to. The entire sport looked up to Burke. The live announcer mentioned her several times throughout the program. Almost all the athletes going through the mixed zone were asked about her.

And it was a terribly emotional day for Groenewoud, coming off surgery on both knees, trying to find confidence and wanting so much to have this day be perfect: Wanting to play tribute in a most meaningful way to her dear friend.

The emotion got the best of Groenewoud, who stood at the bottom of the halfpipe with wet eyes, a broken heart and a brave smile: She is normally world class in her sport. She never quite found her way here.

Wearing her traditional bright red lipstick and touching her helmet — her way to acknowledge Burke — she looked great, but just never felt right. She finished seventh. Like the men of ski cross, she so much wanted a podium place, for her, for Sarah, for history.

In the end, away from so much of the success in the city, there was melancholy in the mountains. The tributes were fitting, the end game for Canadians was not.

“I thought I was going to pull it out tonight,” said Groenewoud, of Calgary. “It was my dream (to be here and be on the podium) ... It just wasn’t happening for me tonight.”

And had Sarah Burke been here: “She would have won.”

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