The Top Sports Science Stories of 2012: Sarah Burke's Death

In the immediate aftermath of the skier’s fatal injury, questions are raised online about helmet, risk, and health insurance

Sarah Burke.     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On January 19, 29-year-old freestyle skier Sarah Burke died after hitting her head and tearing her vertebral artery while training in a Park City, Utah, superpipe. Burke’s legacy will be many inspiring things to many people, including that her lobbying was one of the main reasons women’s halfpipe skiing was added to the lineup for the 2014 Olympics.

Burke’s injury occurred on January 10 in an age of rapidfire online news and commentary. Almost immediately, two conversations arose. The first revolved around head injuries in skiing and pushing the limits. People wanted to know whether Burke was wearing a helmet and how much she was pushing herself beyond her abilities. As Outside’s Grayson Schaffer reported, Burke was skiing her normal routine, suffered what some sites reported as an unremarkable fall, and was wearing a helmet.

That Burke was wearing a helmet was not a surprise, and indicative of a trend in skiing and snowboarding in the United States. Helmet usage has gone up from 25 percent of riders in 2002/2003 to 57 percent in 2009 /2010 to 67 percent last winter. A November study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Surgery Care said that wearing helmets clearly reduced the risk of head injuries during skiing and snowboarding and did not increase the risk of neck injury, cervical spine injury, or risk compensation behavior. Roughly 10 million Americans ski or snowboard in the United States every year, with 600,000 injuries reported annually and up to 20 percent of those occurring to the head. Twenty-two percent of those injuries lead to loss of consciousness, concussion, or worse, which is why many parks now require helmets in pipe activities—but there is no across-the-board requirement that skiers or snowboarders wear helmets at resorts. The study’s authors suggested making them mandatory. And the lead author, Adil H. Haider of Johns Hopkins University School, said wearing helmets could help reduce hospitalization, death, and prevent an increase in health care spending.

The second conversation began after Burke’s agent, Michael Spencer, started a fundraising page online to help Burke's family pay roughly $200,000 in medical costs. Her fans came through, giving more than $270,000 in less than a week. People wanted to know why Burke’s treatment wasn’t covered by health insurance. Gordy Megroz reported the answer in his November story, “Will Obamacare Mean Relief for Uninsured Adventure Athletes?” Burke was training for an unsanctioned event in the United States, where her Canadian Health insurance and the Canada Freestyle Ski Association’s plan did not cover her. One fan asked Monster Energy why the company didn’t foot the bill. Athletes chimed in on the difficulty they faced in obtaining insurance. “Securing reliable insurance is the hardest part of our job,” tweeted skier Cody Townsend.

When changes to the nation’s healthcare plan go into effect, it won’t make getting health insurance easier or more affordable for adventure athletes. To help those looking, some athletes have posted advice.  Sports clubs have offered up health and life insurance packages, as the American Alpine Club does for its members. Other services, like Ridersurance, help individuals find specific coverage. If you know of any other resources for health insurance, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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