Andrew Kurka at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Andrew Kurka’s Paralympic experience has been a lesson in peaks and valleys.
The 30-year-old three-time Paralympian from Palmer, Alaska, broke his back during a downhill training run at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. At the 2018 PyeongChang Games, he captured a gold medal in the men’s downhill sitting category and silver in super-G. At the Beijing Games last March, he broke bones in his shoulder and thumb while warming up for the downhill race. Unaware of the seriousness of his injuries, Kurka competed anyway and finished fourth.
The mishap in Beijing might have totally discouraged some athletes. But Kurka has an entirely different view.
“My perspective is that I can do it, and I will do it,” Kurka said. “I know what it takes. I just have to not give up.”
Kurka is no stranger to coming back from injuries. At age 13, his dream of becoming an Olympic wrestler was shattered after an ATV crash severely damaged three vertebrae in his spinal cord. Despite the injury, he went on to win six state wrestling championships.
Two years after the accident, Kurka tried monoskiing for the first time. He suffered a broken ankle at the national championships in 2009 but bounced back to make the U.S. national team in 2010. Broken bones in his back and femur forced him to miss two different Winter X Games, but he won bronze in super-G at the 2015 world championships.
Last season was shaping up to be a great year for Kurka both on the slopes and in his personal life.
In October 2021, he took a trip to Mexico with his girlfriend, Veronica Quezada. While there, he proposed to her through a message in a bottle while on the beach.
“I wanted it to be something special,” Kurka said of the proposal. “I live in Alaska, and I do a lot of fishing. We walk along the beaches and find a lot of cool items. I figured the message in a bottle was a good way to surprise her.”
Then at the World Para Snow Sports Championships last January, he won bronze medals in downhill and giant slalom.
Kurka had high hopes once he arrived in Beijing. The injury occurred while warming up for the opening alpine race under rough weather conditions.
“The wind took me into the fence,” Kurka explained. “It was unsafe conditions, but we were still racing and still training.”
Kurka competed in the downhill despite agonizing pain in his shoulder and managed to finish fourth before X-rays revealed broken bones on his thumb and the outside of his shoulder. Despite having to sit out the remaining races, the fourth-place finish was a boost to his confidence.
“To me, it’s a positive thing,” Kurka said. “I got fourth place with a broken shoulder and thumb. If I can be fourth in the world and lead a good portion of the race with such a hefty disadvantage like that, I know that if I wasn’t injured, it would have been an easy win.”
Kurka and Quezada were officially married in Mexico on July 3. The two met in 2018 while Kurka was doing a Team USA photo shoot for a magazine. He subsequently took a trip to Mexico and Quezada, a professional team handball athlete, showed him around.
The two became friends and waited a while before they began dating. Quezada came to Alaska for a visit in 2020 and was unable to return home for several months because of the COVID-19 shutdown.
“It wasn’t long after that we decided we’d get married,” Kurka said. “Everything is great, we’re enjoying each other. It’s a dream come true having someone else to build a life with.”
The couple recently bought a house and are spending a great deal of time renovating it. Kurka also spends a lot of time fishing, another one of his passions. But his top priority is getting physically strong enough to start training for the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games in Italy. The setback in Beijing has given him more resolve to not only make it back, but to win.
“It’s really hard to know you could’ve won something, and then just to be immensely unfortunate,” he said. “It’s really hard to lose when it’s not due to yourself. My plan is to make a comeback, just like I did from Sochi going into PyeongChang.”