PARK CITY, Utah — The afternoon sun has cast a giant shadow across one wall of the imposing 22-foot superpipe at Park City Mountain Resort.
On the other, members of the French national team are illuminated as they catch big air, twisting and spinning as they prepare for another run at the Winter X Games later this month.
Though they just arrived at this Utah mountain town, they know this is the pipe where Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, in critical condition at a nearby hospital, was injured just days ago. And it is the same pipe where champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury two years ago.
Although the athletes training Thursday said they respect the sport’s dangers, they’ll continue doing what they do.
“The danger is part of the sport, so you have to accept that,” said Benoit Valentin, 19, an alternate at the upcoming X Games.
The French currently have some of the best halfpipe skiers in the world, with Kevin Rolland and Thomas Krief, and 2009 Winter X Games Champion Xavier Bertoni.
“We come here because it’s the best place to train at this time of the year,” French coach Greg Guenet said.
And they come because not only do they want to do well at the X Games but at the 2014 Olympics, where the sport will be included for the first time.
Burke, a four-time Winter X Games champion in halfpipe skiing, has been one of the leading pioneers to have it included in the Olympics.
She was considered a favorite for the Sochi Games and was gearing up to defend her latest X Games gold medal this month in Aspen, Colo., when she suffered a devastating injury Tuesday afternoon.
Burke, a 29-year-old from Ontario who lives in Squamish, British Columbia, remained in critical condition at University Hospital in Salt Lake City after a successful operation Wednesday to repair a tear to a vertebral artery that caused bleeding in her brain. Medical experts say such a tear can cause bleeding that disrupts blood flow to the brain, which in serious cases can lead to brain damage or death.
Doctors are monitoring her brain function before making definitive pronouncements about her chances of recovery.
Because of her situation, members of the French team training at the Park City superpipe didn’t want to talk about the accident.
“We know her and love her and hope she’s going to be better,” Guenet said. “We send our best to her family and her husband, too. We know him, too.”
Another team member did not want to be interviewed at all.
Valentin acknowledged there is always some fear. “We are always scared about doing jumps in the air, but you can deal with that,” he said. “You can do what you do, and that’s it. But it’s always scary.”
Excitement about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics often overrides that fear.
“It means the sport is bigger than before, and a gold medal for me is the dream,” Valentin said.
Dr. Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., has watched the sport evolve.
“The athletes are growing with the pipes,” said Hackett, head team physician for U.S. Snowboarding. “The reason the pipes are getting that big is that’s what the athletes want. A lot of the progression of the sport is athlete-driven; it’s not driven by sponsorships or external public influence.”
Hackett said the athletes have respect for the danger and potential injury.
“There’s plenty of times when they’re up on the pipe and they call it quits for the day because they’re just not feeling it,” Hackett said. “It’s not because they’re tired or lazy but smart. They realize they need to walk away from the pipe that day.”
He said it’s coincidental that two major injuries occurred at the Park City superpipe.
“There’s only a few places where those pipes are created, and that’s where the best athletes go,” he said.