Andrew Kurka competes at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 10, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Paralympic ski racer Andrew Kurka’s world cup season is looking like it’s going to consist of just one race.
But it’s better than nothing.
“I’m just super happy to be here on the international circuit and getting the opportunity to compete against my real competition because right now we’re a year out from the (Paralympic Games Beijing 2022) and things are a bit of a mix right now,” said Kurka, 29, a sit skier and two-time Paralympic medalist from Palmer, Alaska. “It’s a mix of yes, I’m getting more training than I’m used to this time of year, but I was also off the snow for nine months so am I really getting enough time on snow to be globally competitive? Being able to see my competition and get to compete against them will answer those questions.”
Kurka is one of four members of the U.S. Para alpine team currently in Austria for their first international competition of the season. The last time any of them raced on the world cup circuit was in Sakhalinsk, Russia, in February 2020.
Joining Kurka are four-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens, second-year national team member Ravi Drugan and rookie David Williams. All are sit skiers.
The full team did travel to Austria for a training camp back in October, making it the first time the athletes were able to get together since the pandemic shut everything down almost a year ago. Even then, however, plans to return to Europe to race were up in the air.
Things became even less settled with the cancelation of the world championships, which were to take place this month in Lillehammer, Norway.
Now, while most of their top competitors have already taken part in a couple of world cup events over the past few weeks, the Americans are coming in having competed mainly against one another and national team hopefuls since the beginning of January.
As part of the safety protocols, the team members had to quarantine for several days before leaving for Europe then again after arriving, for a total of eight days off the snow, Kurka said.
“I can tell you I’m going to ski as much as I can prior to the race,” he said. “That’s a large reason why we’ve been staying in the U.S. to compete is because right now travel (to and from) other countries is superbly difficult.”
This week’s races, held in Leogang, Austria, will consist only of giant slalom and slalom. A second world cup event later this month that the team was supposed to travel to in Sakhalinsk was canceled. Those races were to include downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
For Kurka, who does not compete in slalom and is a speed specialist, that means his lone world cup outing will be in his weakest event.
Still, he said, it’s better than following along on social media like he has been the past few weeks.
“That’s the most painful part,” he said. “I’ve been sending messages back and forth to my biggest competitors talking to them like, ‘Who’s new on the circuit,’ and asking what’s going on. It’s tough because everyone’s constantly improving. World cup competition is the best in the world and everyone’s constantly getting better so you really need to see that and be able to compete against them to see where you need to be and to gauge yourself.”
World Para Alpine, the sport’s international governing body, used to video the world cup races and post them, he said, but they haven’t even been doing that this year, making it even more difficult to know what everyone else is doing.
A year from now, the team will be on the verge of the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Paralympic Games. The U.S. came home from the 2018 Games with eight medals: one gold, three silver and two bronze.
Of those, Kurka won the lone gold in downhill and a silver in super-G.
This will be his first time racing at Leogang.
“Speed is definitely my focus, but at least it’ll give me a good opportunity to gauge where I’m at and see if I’m able to get on the podium,” he said. “If I can get on the podium I’ll be extremely happy with that and it will give me a huge confidence booster going into the Games.”