Sports community remembers Anna Burns: ‘They gave everything they have’

  • Anna Burns competes during the National Ultimate Training Camp this past summer. Burns passed at 16 after a cardiac arrest at a cross-country meet on Sept. 13. PHOTO BY TOM WHITE/NUTC

Staff Writer
Monday, October 03, 2022

It’s been just over two weeks since the unexpected passing of Amherst Regional High School student Anna Burns, but the ripple effects of the 16-year-old’s loss will linger long after.

Burns, a junior and three-sport athlete at Amherst, experienced cardiac arrest at a cross-country meet on Sept. 13. News of their passing was released to friends and community members on the following Sunday.

“It’s a huge loss. It’s heartbreaking and totally, totally unexpected,” offered Amherst Nordic ski coach Carl Cignoni. “A big loss for Amherst and all their friends and family, but also to the bigger community.”

Cignoni was one of many coaches that Burns played for at various points in their life. Most well-known for their prowess in skiing and ultimate Frisbee, Burns recently took their endurance talents to the cross-country course as well. Whether they were flying down a mountain, snagging a catch in ultimate, or toeing the starting line in cross-country, Burns’ bright and caring personality stood out to everyone they met.

Burns identified as nonbinary and used the pronoun “they.”

“Anna had a clear ability to connect with all people on the team. They’re a very non-judgmental human. And so they were really very connected to just about everybody on the team,” Amherst ultimate head coach Dan Kaplan said.

“(They were) very much interested in justice and fairness and acting with integrity and caring about the people who didn’t have as loud voice, (and) very interested in speaking for marginalized attitudes. I think as a result, they gained a lot of respect — I think everybody would say that they thought highly about Anna.”

Several of Burns’ coaches across various sports mentioned their friendliness and compassion for everyone on their teams. Despite their age, they were both athletically gifted and a strong communicator.

Former ARHS ultimate coach Hannah Baranes, who coached Burns for their freshman year, was awed by their ability to intuit what the team needed and convey that clearly to the coaching staff, despite their young age.

“Anna and the other group of ninth graders had this fierce support of each other to a level I had never seen... and Anna was definitely, I think, sort of the linchpin of that. They were extremely loving and loved by their teammates,” Baranes said.

“I think the thing that Anna taught me that I always think about is that they had this amazing ability to speak up for what they needed, including to adults and people in positions of power… I’ve never had a ninth grader do that before. I’ve hardly had any player do that before. It taught me to kind of approach my relationships with all players from always starting from a place of curiosity… and how to meet each other.”

Burns’ leadership qualities were apparent to most of their coaches at an early age. It’s the reason Cignoni named Burns one of the team’s Nordic ski captains despite being just a sophomore last winter.

“They were very supportive of their teammates. At Amherst last year, Anna was one of the team captains as a 10th grader, so they were still pretty young,” Cignoni said. “They were a really good leader — not like a rah-rah leader, but by example and supporting other teammates and taking the lead on what a captain would do.”

Burns competed with skiing and ultimate longer, but they brought the same dedication and passion to their newest sport, cross-country running, as they did to everything else. Amherst cross-country coach Ron Jacobs said he knew that Burns was primarily running to prepare for ski season, but noted that they were still an enthusiastic member of the team.

“Anna was doing cross-country to prepare for Nordic, but if you were to watch them in practice, or watch them interacting with teammates, you would never know that because they were fully engaged with what was happening in practice and really excited to go to meets,” Jacobs said.

“They were one of the athletes where you never really have to question their effort levels. They gave everything that they have every day that they were in practice. I think a lot of the athletes really appreciated that, and were inspired by that.”

Burns’ loss won’t just be felt in the athletic community — they were also involved in a number of community activities, most notably the Sunrise Movement in Amherst, where they were working with others to combat climate change. Anna “wanted to make a difference in the world,” wrote their family in their online obituary. “Mostly, Anna cared.”

It was clear that their coaches and teammates cared deeply about them, too. Though it’s still early, and plans are still being discussed, coaches said they’re hoping to create some kind of long-lasting memorial for Burns in their respective sports, whether that’s a scholarship or a race dedicated in their honor.

When asked about what Burns was like, coaches offered myriad adjectives for them — fearless, humble, compassionate, athletic, respectful, goofy, protector. This was a person who left a lasting impact on everyone they met.

In Ultimate, there’s a term called “spirit of the game” that emphasizes playing the sport with a certain level of respect as well as intensity. Yes, you’re expected to give your all on the field, and that’s important. But it’s equally, if not more important, that you not see your opponents as the enemy — to respect the foe and the rules and the game itself. It was something that Jim Pistrang, an Amherst middle school ultimate coach, noticed in Burns at a very young age.

“That was one of the really notable things about Anna is that they really embodied this thing called spirit of the game, where they could play intensely and still respect their teammates, respect their opponents, respect the game,” Pistrang said.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, especially for a middle school player. It’s not an easy thing to do that.”

It won’t be easy for anyone to move on after the loss of Burns, especially when they were taken so unexpectedly and so soon. But it’s clear that they will be remembered by everyone, and that their “spirit of the game” will be carried on in others.