Andrew Kurka poses for a photo at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 26, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
When Andrew Kurka arrived at his third World Para Alpine Skiing Championships two years ago, he had no world titles, just a history of skiing fast and also an extensive history of getting hurt.
That all changed in 2017 when the sit-skier won his first-ever world title in downhill, took silver in giant slalom and bronze in super-G. Now the 26-year-old from Palmer, Alaska, is back at worlds – which begin Monday and are being held in Kranjksa Gora, Slovenia, and Sella Nevea, Italy – not only as the defending champion in downhill but also a Paralympic gold and silver medalist. It will be his first time at a major international competition since the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and with his success of the past two years, he knows he’ll have his challengers.
“I know I'm a veteran in this sport and there are young athletes coming up trying to take me out of that No. 1 spot in the world and a lot of other athletes right there with me trying to achieve success and knock me off,” he said. “I’m aware they’re there, and the fact that I’m in the No. 1 spot is something that helps to keep me ahead of it, keep me working harder and wanting to be faster than I was before because I know they’re chasing me.”
Chasing top-level international success was exactly where Kurka was two years ago.
He called the experience of winning three medals at worlds a weight off his shoulders.
“Winning at the world championships came at a great time,” he said. “It was right before PyeongChang and it was the moment where I realized I could do this, this was for me. That confidence really helped boost me. Starting in my career I’d broken a bone almost every season since I started racing and that was the first year I really focused on staying consistent. It helped me to realize that a lot of what I do here in this sport is not necessarily all about getting a gold medal and winning. A lot of times it’s about the journey, and being a little better tomorrow than you were today.”
Prior to that time of growth, Kurka was a guy who really only knew one speed — full throttle. Unfortunately, that led to lots of broken bones, including both ankles, his femur and his back, multiple times. He’d get hurt, miss time, then return to racing feeling like he had to make up for the absence by winning in order to stay on the team, so he’d just go as fast as he possibly could.
Often times he’d either win, or crash. Again.
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Kurka’s most notorious crash came at the 2014 Winter Games on a training run. He broke his back and ended up out of the competition altogether before he’d even begun.
“After Sochi, I broke my femur a few months later and it was a real dark time in my career,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could continue doing this sport. That’s when I really dedicated my career on being focused on being better than I am today. It wasn’t about winning; it was about doing what I loved to do and what I knew I could do when it mattered.”
With the success at the world championships still fresh, Kurka went into PyeongChang determined to not let Sochi be his big Paralympic story. His first race was the downhill — his best event — and Kurka won the gold medal. Not only did he become the first Alaskan to win a winter Paralympic medal, but he did so in dominant fashion, winning by more than a second and a half for his largest margin of victory in a downhill race ever. He also became the first American man to win alpine skiing gold since 2006.
Kurka would also collect a silver in the super-G before it was over, and his Paralympic story was officially rewritten.
Now Kurka heads into the 2019 world championships as the one to beat in downhill and one to watch in virtually every other race as well, as he plans on entering every event.
In a unique situation, this will be the first racing Kurka has done all season.
“A lot of our other races have been canceled, but I’ve had a lot of good training and personal life’s going well so I feel prepared and I’m definitely confident going into worlds,” he said. “Especially in the speed stuff, in downhill and super-G training, I think I’ve had more training than I’ve ever had before. I’m excited. It’s my first time getting to defend my world championship gold.”
To this day, his coaches know they don’t ever have to tell him to really get after it, he said. Instead they tell him to stay upright, and maybe even back off a little. He now knows that if he can assess the situation and know when to hold back and to when to really go for it, he’ll be a step ahead.
He also knows that if he holds tight to the philosophy that made such a difference in his career leading up to the 2017 world championships, “the rest will take care of itself."
“I always have goals, and my goal is always to be a little bit better than I was before and to learn from races to help make myself a little better as a competitor,” he said. “When it comes down to it, of course winning gold is what I’m there to do, but sometimes that just doesn’t pan out. I don’t always have control over the gold medal, but I do have control over myself and learning to be a better athlete than I was before."
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.