Air Ladies contest honors Sarah Burke

Tucked into the Alps on the eastern boarder of France, a 24-foot-tall quarterpipe sat at the foot of Tignes' towering peaks. On Thursday night, 7,000 fans came out to watch nine women compete in the inaugural Air Ladies quarterpipe competition, founded by halfpipe skier and Olympic silver medalist Marie Martinod.

Every centimeter aired in the contest earned money for the Sarah Burke Foundation, and in total, more than $22,500 was raised.

Since Burke's death in January 2012, everyone has skied with her memory in his or her heart. But this was the first time anyone has literally been able to ski for Burke.

"This was one of the best nights of my life, to be here with you girls, to be thinking of Sarah," said Gord Burke, Burke's father, who was in attendance all week in Tignes. "It's beyond anything I could have ever imagined."

Air Ladies contest honors Sarah Burke

Martinod returned to halfpipe competition last year after a six-year retirement, and this winter she set about creating an event to honor Burke.

"After X Games last year, in the spring I started to write exactly what kind of contest I would like to see," Martinod said. "At first I really wanted to be able to donate the money to the Sarah Burke Foundation, so I started to think about how we could jump to get money. Then I thought, 'Yes, the quarter!' Because we can go high and accumulate." And so the Air Ladies event was born.

The concept was simple: Go big and raise the bar. In the qualification round, nine women each took two hits on the quarterpipe, with maximum amplitude being the goal. The hit needed to be landed cleanly in order to count, so tricks performed were an added bonus.

The four women with the highest jumps in qualifications moved on to the next round: French skier Anais Caradeux, Japanese sensation and Olympic bronze medalist Ayana Onozuka, American Grete Eliassen and France's Clemence Grimal, the lone snowboarder in the contest.

Caradeux had clean skiing and great-looking mute grabs, but Onozuka's amplitude topped her. When Eliassen realized that she didn't have the air to top Grimal's massive method, she laid out her signature hand plant.

So Onozuka and Grimal advanced to the final, where each jump earned 5 euros per centimeter of air, while Caradeux and Eliassen headed to the small final, jumping for 3 euros per centimeter. In the end, the only snowboarder in the field caught the most air, leaving Onozuka in second, Eliassen in third and Caradeux in fourth.

"I've never competed in front of a crowd this big in France," Grimal said. "You could feel the energy from everyone."

Martinod says she is hopeful this event will happen again next year. All of the women involved said they enjoyed making the event more of a performance than a competition, and in the spirit of Burke, they hope to continue spreading her ultimate message: Do what you love and love what you do.

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