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.”