U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing athletes ready for more action

By Caryn Maconi | Nov. 22, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
Staci Mannella
After medaling at the world cup races in Australia and New Zealand earlier this summer, Staci Mannella returns to competition Nov. 22-24 in Panorama, Canada.

When Andrew Kurka was a teenage wrestler with Olympic aspirations, his coach used to remind him that there would always be someone better.

Kurka was talented in his sport, winning six Alaskan state championships in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Still, his coach’s words motivated him to dream bigger.

“My dream was to be an Olympic champion,” Kurka said. “Once you’re an Olympic champion, there’s no one better in that moment.”

Kurka’s life changed at age 13, however, when he was involved in an ATV accident that damaged his spinal cord and left him unable to walk.  When a physical therapist suggested he try adaptive skiing as part of his rehabilitation, he was reluctant.

“I thought, ‘No, skiing is for pansies, I’m a wrestler,’” Kurka said. “It turns out skiing is not for pansies. I really enjoyed it.”

Today, Kurka still wants to defy his coach’s words – but this time as a Paralympic alpine skier. The 21-year-old is in his sixth season on the international racing circuit and is currently ranked Top 10 in the world. His ultimate goal is raise that ranking to No. 1 and the top of the podium at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Kurka and the rest of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team will move a step closer to Sochi this weekend by competing at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing races in Panorama, British Columbia.

Five men and five women will compete for Team USA in varying disability classifications at the event, which begins today and continues through Sunday.

While the race is not a world cup, athletes will earn points that help determine world rankings and qualification for IPC Alpine Skiing World Cups and Paralympic events. Scoring is based on finishing place, with athletes aiming for as few points as possible. To qualify for world cups and ultimately the Paralympic Winter Games in each discipline, athletes must remain under a certain point threshold.

Kurka said his biggest competition in the men’s sitting category will be the Japanese team. Though he hopes to race smart and finish each run efficiently, he said sometimes his addiction to speed can be his biggest downfall.

“Every one of these courses adds a building block,” Kurka said. “I want to make sure I finish my races, and of course I always want to go 110 percent. My coach says that’s my biggest flaw, that if I just went 90 percent I’d probably finish all my races, but I just can’t do that.”

Kurka has the added challenge of racing on a new mono-ski, though he said he looks forward to testing out the rig at high speeds this weekend.

“I have feeling for speed. I’m able to find where speed is and what’s faster, and I just go for it now,” Kurka said. “I have to get used to the new rig, but once I get it dialed in my stats will be improving and improving.”

Kurka’s new mono-ski is significantly lighter than his old one, so he has focused on gaining weight in the off-season to maintain his inertia across flats.

“Usually in the morning I did heavy weightlifting, and in evening I did lighter weights with more reps and sort of a crossfit thing in the afternoon,” Kurka said. “I’ve had about two weeks on snow so far, but I still feel like I’m ready. I picked up right where I left off last year.”

While Kurka has put in time at the gym for the past few months, teammate Staci Mannella and her guide Kim Seevers haven’t taken much time off the snow. The visually-impaired athlete and her guide trained and raced at world cups in Australia and New Zealand for nearly a month over the summer.

“I had seven world cup starts, so that was fun,” Mannella said. “That was my first world cup series with the U.S. team, and I ended up winning my first start ever, so that was exciting.”

At 17, Mannella is the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team and balances a high school workload with full-time training. She is currently taking three classes online, is set to graduate on time and has applied early decision to Dartmouth College for the fall semester.

Mannella and Seevers have been training together since Mannella was 11 years old, and their relationship has become one of unbelievable trust.

“When you’ve skied with someone for as long as we’ve skied together, we know each other pretty well,” Mannella said of her 55-year-old guide. “On snow if she says something, I usually know exactly what she’s talking about. She knows what to tell me and what not to tell me, and she knows what’s best for me.”

Manella’s toughest competition in the visually-impaired classification will likely be U.S. teammate Dannelle Umstead with guide/husband Rob Umstead and British competitor Jade Etherington with guide Caroline Powell.

While the national team members will be racing for the United States, they will represent their home clubs at the event in Panorama. Kurka will be representing the Aspen Valley Ski Club (AVSC), while Mannella will represent Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF), an organization based out of her hometown of Windham, N.Y. 

The athletes won’t have long to rest following this weekend’s race, as most are set to compete at the Copper Mountain, Colo., NorAm from Dec. 12-15 and a Winter Park, Colo., NorAm in early January. The continuation of the world cup season follows immediately after with return visits to Panorama and Copper Mountain in mid-January.