Monoskier Andrew Kurka admits that when he first started racing, his strategy, as much as it existed, was simple: Point and go.
“It was either crash big or win big,” said Kurka, 25, who did a little of both.
The past two seasons, however, the resident of Palmer, Alaska, said he’s been able to find a middle ground, which has helped him to stay injury-free and find greater consistency on the hill.
It’s also leading to greater success and setting Kurka up as one to watch at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games next year. In February, Kurka was crowned the men’s downhill champion at the 2017 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships and also won silver in the giant slalom and bronze in the super-G.
“It’s just a very confident feeling,” he said. “It’s put me in a situation I’ve wanted to be in my whole career where I’m not just an athlete or a representative for my country, but in the spotlight. It puts pressure on me to be the best representative I can be for the children and people watching to really showcase what Paralympic sport is all about. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”
Kurka was named to the U.S. Paralympics alpine skiing team in 2013 and in 2014 won the U.S. downhill title, in addition to earning several top-five international finishes leading up to the Sochi Games. He always had the speed and confidence to be a threat, said U.S. Paralympics alpine ski and snowboard high performance director Kevin Jardine, and he was never afraid to take a risk. At times, however, that fearlessness and emotion didn’t do him any favors. He often took different lines than everyone else, Jardine said, and while he was skiing fast, the top-to-bottom result wasn’t placing him where he wanted to be.
Other times, the fearlessness resulted in crashes.
Kurka’s most infamous crash came on a training run in Sochi in which he suffered a broken back and didn’t even get to participate in the Opening Ceremony, let alone compete for a medal.
Eight months later, he broke his femur while training. Kurka said that all told he spent nearly 12 months injured and at one point feared he might lose his spot on the team.
That didn’t happen, however, and Jardine said that in recent years Kurka has matured as a skier and figured out that he needn’t take risks in order to win.
“I think he’s doing a great job of skiing fast and skiing safe, which is something he didn’t used to do,” Jardine said. “He’s grown up a little, which has helped him, and he’s started to learn a little more about tactics and what it takes to win.”
Part of evolving as a ski racer has included becoming more proficient technically, which Kurka said he’s working on. His challenge in slalom courses, he said, is that he’s usually sitting in second or third place after the first run but then has a tendency to crash or “mess up big” on the second run. He’s pushing toward gaining the consistency and confidence to go into each and every event with the chance to medal.
Beginning on March 11, he’ll get his first look at the hills where he could face the greatest challenge of his career in less than a year. The U.S. team will compete in the IPC World Cup Finals in PyeongChang, South Korea, which will also serve as the test event for next year’s Paralympic Winter Games.
Kurka said he plans to learn everything he can about the venues.
“It’s not necessarily about victory but about challenging myself to be the best I can be, listen to my coaches and put it down the hill,” he said. “It’s about learning the hill and training myself on what to expect next year. That way I can practice in the offseason and come to training camp knowing what I need to prepare for.”
The crash in Sochi still casts a big shadow over Kurka’s career, he said, and while it’s part of his story that he can’t escape, it may also be a part that makes 2018 even more remarkable.
“I’ve been really close to defeat a few times, so to get so close to defeat then come back and overcome it all is going to be a personal success of mine and definitely a goal I’m aiming for,” he said. “Not even the gold, necessarily, although I know I have a good chance of winning, but I feel like it’s a goal for me to compete and complete what I started.”
Another goal is to do something no Alaskan has ever done before: win a medal in the Paralympics.
“That’s something I’m trying to put my mark on as well,” he said. “I have a strong bond to my home state of Alaska, and I really want to make them proud of me up there. It’s my home and I’m always going to go back there. I’ll travel and see the world, but Alaska will always be home.”