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Pride Of Alaska Andrew Kurka Has One Gold Medal, And He’s Not Done Skiing For More

By Karen Price | Oct. 12, 2020, 4:26 p.m. (ET)

Andrew Kurka competes in the Alpine Skiing Men's Downhill, Sitting during the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 10, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.

Winning the gold medal in sitting downhill at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang is something that Andrew Kurka still describes as surreal two and a half years later.

He also still vividly remembers those few minutes after finishing the run that put him in first place.

Taiki Morii, the Japanese skier who won the silver medal, was to his left and New Zealand’s Corey Peters, who won bronze, was to his right. In the two years leading up to PyeongChang, Kurka said, he and Peters had enjoyed a rivalry that not only saw them share in some friendly back-and-forth trash talking but also finish within five-hundredths of a second of one another race after race.

As Kurka waited for the final competitors to come down the hill in the biggest race of his life, he turned to Peters and wondered aloud who could get him.

“He said, ‘Man, no one’s getting you. You won by over a second. No one’s touching you. I just hope I can stay in third,’” Kurka said. “To hear that from someone who’s always had a significant role in my career as a competitor and a friend, that was when it finally sank in and I was like, ‘Yeah, I did do it. Who could beat that time?’”

Kurka’s gold medal came four years after a training crash in Sochi that left him unable to compete in the 2014 Paralympics and one day before he also won the silver medal in the super-G. Those medal-winning moments were the culmination of so many things, he said, that now have him exactly where he’s always wanted to be.

“One minute, 16 seconds top to bottom; one minute, 16 seconds that can change your entire life,” he said. “But it’s hours and hours and hours of pain, blood, sweat and tears that led to that one single minute. That’s really what it came down to.”

Kurka, 28, was a promising wrestler who won Alaskan state championships in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling growing up, but when he was 13 years an ATV accident damaged three vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord.

Transitioning into sit skiing, Kurka has been a U.S. national team member since 2010. His path to gold in 2018 had some tough moments. His dreams of competing on the world’s biggest stage were put on hold in 2014 after breaking his back in a training run crash just prior to the Opening Ceremony in Sochi. Eight months later, he broke his femur in training.

His self-described “crash big or win big” mentality having taken its toll, Kurka learned to temper his approach to racing and in 2017 won the world title in downhill, silver in giant slalom and bronze in super-G.

Heading into PyeongChang a year later, however, his focus was not on winning the gold.

He knew his limits, and if racing within them meant missing out on a medal, that was OK.

“It was all about proving I could finish and do this thing without failing,” he said. “I just wanted to prove to myself that it was possible and I could do it.”

My focus is to be back on snow and pursuing the same goal of being a little better every day. Gold, silver, bronze, top 10, doesn’t matter as much as completing small goals matters.

In winning gold, Kurka became the first Alaskan to win the top award at the Paralympics. That was a dream he’d held for many years, and for it he was honored as the men’s Pride of Alaska winner by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. 

Kurka hails from Palmer, Alaska, which he describes as “the hometown you always wanted to live in” and takes an immense amount of pride in being from the 49th state.

“Alaska is the last frontier,” he said. “To live here you have to love the great outdoors and you have to want to have adventures and see the world the way people used to see it before everything had been settled and taken over. I think frontiersman is one word that signifies Alaskans in general. One out of every 50 Alaskans has a pilot’s license and one out of every 150 has a plane. More than that own boats. It’s not uncommon to go ice climbing, people love skiing and if they don’t, they’re hiking a mountain that people in Colorado would say is ridiculous. We work hard, play harder and do it in unique ways.”

When Kurka dreamed of winning Paralympic gold, it wasn’t just to have the medal but to also have a bigger platform and opportunity to show people what’s possible. The spotlight has helped him work toward his bigger dream of opening a bed and breakfast in Palmer that caters to people with disabilities and will allow him to share his love of Alaska by taking them on fishing, skiing and other adventures.

For now, though, Kurka is still focused primarily on his skiing career. He left with the U.S. team for Austria on Wednesday for a training camp that will run through the end of the month.

Between not racing since before COVID hit in March and watching his European counterparts get time on the snow recently, Kurka said, he’s thrilled to have the chance to get back to what he loves.

“My No. 1 hope is to get through the season healthy and my other hope is that we get a solid season off because everything right now is fluid and changing,” he said. “The fact that we might not have a season is still a possibility and that, to me, is kind of scary. With that said, I’m going to be skiing and doing everything I can to train to the best of my ability. My focus is to be back on snow and pursuing the same goal of being a little better every day. Gold, silver, bronze, top 10, doesn’t matter as much as completing small goals matters. Every single race if I can complete a small goal I’ll become a little better racer. Then when it comes down to it at a big event I’ll be able to put it together.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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