Andrew Kurka was a six-time Greco and freestyle Alaska state champion before becoming one of the greatest Paralympic skiers on the planet.
Kurka grew up in a Russian village of Alaska called Nikolaevsk, where wrestling was a big part of the sporting community. When he was 8 years old, he was invited to try the sport by a friend. Little did he know, it would become one of the biggest passions of his life.
Not only did Kurka find quick success in the sport but he also found a true friend and mentor in his coach, Steve Wolf.
Wolf, who recently passed away, made a lasting impression on Kurka that would lead to his Paralympic aspirations.
“He made a big difference in my career and in my life,” Kurka said. “He helped teach me the integrity of the sport. I will never forget, that’s where my Olympic dream first grew: on a wrestling mat. I had just won state. I don’t remember how young I was, maybe 10. I was walking off the mat after pinning this kid in the finals and my coach said, ‘Remember there is always going to be someone better.’ That’s where the Olympic dream started for me.”
One tragic day, soon after he returned from a wrestling tournament, Kurka, 13 years old, was involved in a four-wheeler accident that left him paralyzed. For a teenager, his world had been shattered. The thing he knew and loved the most had been taken away…or so it seemed.
Kurka became a patient within the Children’s Miracle Network and found a new sense of motivation to keep going after his dreams.
“After I became part of Children’s Miracle Network, I realized what was possible,” he said. “These kids have cancer and they are able to get through this, why can’t I? I really started pursuing being a wrestler. It started with me officiating some of the tournaments up in Alaska and coaching. I eventually started wrestling around with my buddies again, and then I signed up for a tournament.”
Kurka learned how to wrestle on his knees and found ways to win by outsmarting his opponents and using what some might think of as a disadvantage to his advantage. His new approach led him to a Greco state title.
“Because my legs were paralyzed, they were a lot smaller. It gave me quite a bit of a strength advantage over my opponents, especially in Greco,” Kurka said. “I was able to sit back and wait for them to come at me. Wrists and ankles is what I would go for because it’s literally the weakest point of your opponent. I was able to use that against them with my strength. Once I grabbed them, I was able to curl them into a pretzel.”
While continuing to pursue his wrestling goals, Kurka was introduced to skiing by his physical therapist, who picked him up from a wrestling tournament, took him to a mountain and told him to strap on the monoski.
Like wrestling, skiing came naturally to Kurka, who had developed a fearless attitude since his accident. The sport developed into a passion and Kurka’s Olympic dream came back alive and turned into a Paralympic dream.
The Alaska native had his first Paralympic experience in Vancouver in 2010, but he wasn’t competing.
“I was a prospect at that time for being a future Paralympian, so I was able to go and watch everyone compete,” Kurka said. “It was a program that you had to apply for that gave you that kind of amazing opportunity. I applied and got it. So, I watched all my now-teammates compete.”
Just one quadrennial later, Kurka has worked his way to a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team for the Games in Sochi, Russia. However, Kurka’s journey was cut short when he broke his back during his first downhill training run on site.
With his go-getter attitude, Kurka bounced back onto the scene and made a name for himself worldwide.
Since his accident in Sochi, Kurka has won four World medals, including a 2015 World bronze in super-G and three medals at the 2017 World Championships, collecting gold in downhill, silver in giant slalom and bronze in super-G. He is also ranked No. 1 in the world in downhill and super-G.
“After my crash in Sochi, I felt like being able to finally overcome and having that chance to win World Championships like I did has really taken that black cloud over my head and it has helped me realize that I really can be victorious,” Kurka said. “That’s really what it’s all about. Now I know that I am the best in the world. I just want to stay consistent and stay away from injuries. I want to win. That’s all there really is to it.”
Because of his outstanding year, Kurka was named a finalist for the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Athlete of the Year award and was named to the 2018 Paralympic Team.
With the 2018 Paralympic Games opening today in Pyeongchang, Korea, Kurka, a favorite in his events, has a message that he hopes to spread during this Paralympic adventure.
“When you think something is not possible and you realize you can overcome it, it becomes a pretty big thing in life,” Kurka said. “It’s a mental block that I had to overcome to help me get through things. Now I try everything. I go for it. Anything, everything. I pretty much put it on myself to be an example of what you can be if you are in Paralympic sport and what’s possible for having a disability. You can be just as good, if not better, than someone who has legs. You just have to work a little bit different and a little bit harder. It’s all in the perspective.”
To stay up-to-date on Andrew’s journey or to contact him about opportunities within Olympic sport, check out his Twitter @Andrew_Kurka and Instagram @AndrewKurka.