Andrew Kurka holds up one finger after winning a medal at the PyeongChang Paralympics. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
If his scorecard is his best translator, Andrew Kurka has never savored better hospitality than he did in Tarvisio, Italy.
It was the site of the 2017 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships, where Kurka would account for three of Team USA’s five medals. Seeking a tone-setter for the next year’s Paralympic Winter Games — a belated personal first after a broken back snuffed his Sochi dream — he attained his second career bronze medal in super-G, a silver in the giant slalom and gold in the downhill race.
But another takeaway delighted all of the athletes combining to represent 30 nations and five continents. As the skiers descended the base of the course where child spectators waited for an up-close view, Neil Diamond took over the public address system.
Clashing with the physical air of late January, the Brooklyn-born voice recalled a time when “spring became the summer.” When the chorus came, the local spectators gave it their own twist by serenading “Sweet Tarvisio.”
The song synonymous with the Boston Red Sox and assorted American and British football teams found a place at an Italian sporting ground. Odds were not everyone on hand understood the lyrics, yet they welcomed the saccharine sounds as a trimming on top of the main attraction.
As a longtime radio DJ in his native Alaska and a committed citizen of the music world, Kurka relished the aura of unity amid the competition.
“To this day everybody on the world cup circuit still talks about it, still jokes about it, still loves it,” he said, “and that’s one of those things that transcend sports and music. It creates memories.”
Creativity is a crucial tool for Kurka when a slope’s atmosphere lacks audial aid. For his warmup, he carries a playlist in his head and whistles to the tune of a track while trekking to the course.
“A) To control my breathing, and B) So I can get the timing for whatever the course is down.”
His dial will slide anywhere, stopping on stateside standards under such headings as bluegrass, hip hop, rap, rock or oldies. From across the Atlantic, Scottish, Gaelic and Celtic numbers warm him inside with their “big, positive sounds.”
“I’m really all over the board,” he said. “I like good songs, not necessarily types of music, and most people can relate to that.”
But not everyone, even some of his skiing peers, can understand the zone-immersion tricks he brings to the start line. One would have to take multi-hour shifts before a microphone, catering to an obviously unseen audience, to get it.
Kurka has done that, both throughout his years of cueing up country hits and in a few early stabs at his preferred post-athletic vocation in voiceover.
The everyday pressure such technology represents translates when race day comes and a camera is beaming his likeness to another unseen audience.
“The camera sneaks down six inches way from our face,” he said. “That can be a little bit distracting if you don’t know how to process it or how to handle it.”
To his gratitude as a skier, Kurka carries that edge. To his gratitude as someone who says “I just love sounds in general,” his travels have yielded ample discussion fodder.
Mentioning “Amadeus, Amadeus” to his fellow Americans tends to draw perplexed grunts. “But in Europe,” he says, “everybody starts whistling it.” Elsewhere in Central Europe, polka and dance are both popular, and the former tunes an intriguingly different key when you drift further east.
And then there is country, the theme of Kurka’s station back in Wasilla. The sharp-eared skier knows it transcends borders and takes shape to represent other lands from the Andes to the Alps.
“Austrian country is more like polka,” he cited as one example. Meanwhile the genre is popular among pub-goers in the U.K., and Christian Nodal’s attire resembles that of his typical American counterparts when he performs his regional Mexican hits.
And even the familiar overlap with Western music has caught on well beyond the U.S. Past and present country legends Kenny Chesney, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton all get airplay across Europe.
“We singlehandedly have a huge impact on the entire world,” Kurka said. “It shows, and it makes me proud to be an American.
“If it wasn’t for my athletic career and getting to see the world the way I have, I wouldn’t have the same understanding and global respect.”
After recently reduced helpings of those journeys, and ahead of his second Paralympic Games in Beijing, Kurka recommends some classic Irish rock. With its long-time-no-see tone, Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” sounds right for the occasion.
“It’s a popular song, yet it’s not overplayed and it has a good rhythm most know,” he said. “Catchy phrases, and it represents a lot.”