High school graduation is filled with meaning and reflection. Nowhere was that more apparent than with Sugar Bowl Academy’s Class of 2019. This year’s graduating class—the school’s 20th—had the unusual opportunity to ski down to their graduation ceremony, thanks to a blockbuster winter in the Sierra Nevada. As they slalomed down to the deck of the Judah Lodge, the boys were dressed in lederhosen, to honor their classmate Max Burkhart. Burkhart died tragically while racing a Downhill in Lake Louise, Canada on December 7, 2017. Throughout the ceremony, his classmates remembered him with stories, memories and insights on Max’s legacy.
Burkhart, a native of Oberammergau, Germany, has close family in Squaw Valley. He had come to Sugar Bowl Academy as a junior in 2017 to pursue his ski racing and education at a high level. He immediately fell in love with the school and quickly became a force on campus, thanks to his positive spirit, outgoing personality and zest for life. Oberammergau is known for the Passion Play, the reenactment of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection which has been performed by the town’s residents once every ten years since 1633. Like most everyone in Oberammergau, Max was a natural and trained performer: confident, bold and creative. Senior Morgan Ellis spoke in touching detail about the profound impact Max had on the entire school in his short time there, and his “larger than life” spirit that remains strong throughout Sugar Bowl Academy.
Sitting unobtrusively at the back of the campus lawn is a memorial to Max, crafted by the Standteiner family’s Mountain Forge. It is a simple metal box, with seventeen stars—for his seventeen years— etched in the top. Max’s name is engraved on one side, and each of the other sides bear a message: enjoy life; take a moment; take a step. Beyond the messages, the box itself commemorates Max’s compulsion to step up on things and spontaneously speak, in a way that was meant to entertain and engage people.
Along with performing, Max loved speed, and had the physical strength, technical skills and daring mentality for it. He was prepared and excited for the challenge of the NorAm speed events. The night before his accident, Max had called his mother and described Lake Louise as even more beautiful than the Graswang Valley, his beloved home.
Sugar Bowl Academy’s “Max Burkhart Award” is given every year to the FIS Alpine student-athlete who best exemplifies Max’s spirit and approach to the sport. Like the “Coach’s Heart Awards,” given to the hardest worker in each age group, it is a hand crafted wrought iron heart. Sugar Bowl FIS Coach Nick Cohee presented this year’s award and described that it goes to:
“Someone who is an outgoing member of the community, and enjoys the thrills of being part of Sugar Bowl Ski Team & Academy. An athlete that works hard in the gym and ensures that the hard work continues to the race hill. A motivator that pushes the pace in training, no matter what the conditions, and goes until the tank runs empty. A teammate who truly knows what it means to be part of that team, who includes everyone, and never hesitates to bring humor into a situation. A leader who isn’t afraid to be outspoken when needed but who also knows when to buckle down and work. Most of all, this award goes to a person with a passion for living loudly whilst pushing the barriers of athletic excellence.”
As Max’s uncle, Bill Hudson explains: “It is not for the meek.”
This year’s recipient was Preston O’Brien, a rising senior at Sugar Bowl Academy. O’Brien clearly recalls the first time he met Max, at orientation in 2017. “I was with my buddies and saw him standing with Julian (Bogner, a friend of Max’s who also came from Germany for the year). “They were massive,” Obrien recalls. He was immediately intimidated, and wary of being the annoying younger kid. “But I soon realized he was the annoying older kid,” O’Brien laughs. “He was welcoming as could be.” When it comes to Max, O’Brien explains, “living large is definitely an understatement. I am humbled and proud to be recognized in continuing his spirit.”
The summer after the accident, Max’s family traveled to Lake Louise with a carved wooden cross that they placed along the slope where it has a stunning view of the Canadian Rockies. While devastating to his classmates, the tragedy has not deterred them from their dreams in ski racing and beyond; rather, it has inspired them to live more like Max, which is to say, to live larger, to go for it and to be brave.
O’Brien, who is quiet by nature, in some ways sees himself as the opposite of Max. He is reflective when describing what it was like to see Max’s box reappear this spring on campus. “It was cool to see it slowly emerge as the snow melted, and be just as tough and strong as it was in the fall.” He is honored and also inspired by the award. “I want to try to become as spirited a person as he was, and to live the passions that he did.”