PALMER — When Andrew Kurka was younger, his dream was to one day wrestle in the Olympics. A life-altering accident that left him partially paralyzed forced Kurka to switch paths. But the destination has remained the same.
Wednesday, Kurka’s longtime dream became a reality. It may be on the alpine slopes rather than the mat, but Kurka will have the opportunity to represent his country in the international games.
Kurka, an adaptive skier from Palmer, has been named to the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team and will compete in the 2014 Paralympics Games in Sochi, Russia.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Kurka said Wednesday by cellphone from Aspen, Colo., where he is training. “The chance to represent my country is a huge, distinguished honor. It really means a lot.”
Kurka, 22, is one of 26 athletes slated to compete in the games, which start March 7. He is also one of two Alaskans on the team, joining Joe Tomkins of Juneau.
Kurka, currently ranked No. 1 in world in the mono-ski downhill, is expected to compete in the downhill and super-G, his specialties. He could also compete in the giant slalom.
The invitation to compete in the Paralympics for Team USA satisfies his longtime dreams of becoming an Olympian, and represents his ability to take a different athletic path despite losing complete use of his legs.
When Kurka was 13, he was in a four-wheeler accident at Jim Creek near Palmer. The ATV flipped, he said, and Kurka landed on his head. The impact compressed his spine and cracked his skull. He was medevaced from Jim Creek to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, where he spent months recovering from the injuries that left him partially paralyzed.
Ultimately, the accident, the injuries or the leg braces he now wears didn’t squash his competitive spirit or limit his desire to be active. A suggestion by his physical therapist after his release from Providence opened a new door for Kurka and created his journey to Sochi.
Kurka’s physical therapist suggested skiing, offering to make it possible for Kurka to be a part of a Challenge Alaska adaptive skiing event at Alyeska Resort.
“Once I did it, I knew it was for me,” Kurka said. “It made the biggest difference in my life.”
The mono-ski (a molded seat mounted to a metal frame, with a shock absorber between the seat and the single ski) transferred the passion Kurka had for wrestling to his new sport.
Kurka began wrestling when he was 9 years old, living with his family in Homer. Before his accident, Kurka won five state championships in Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. Even at a young age, he was driven to succeed in his sport.
“I wanted to be the best I could be,” Kurka said.
That drive continued after the accident. After losing the use of his legs, Kurka won a sixth state title as a member of the Tri Valley Wrestling Club, beating able-bodied competitors.
Kurka said that “upper body strength and being about to bend around like a pretzel” gave him an advantage while wrestling after his accident.
A shoulder injury is what actually led Kurka to stop wrestling.
Making the shift from the mat to the slope, Kurka continues to drive himself to be the best. He’s been skiing for eight years, since that first trip with Challenge Alaska, and competing for the last four years. He’s in his second year with U.S. Paralympics team, and ready for his first trip to the Paralympics. His time in the sport has already allowed him to see the world. He was recently in France and will travel to Italy later this month.
Based on recent success, Kurka has known for a while that he should be on the list of skiers headed for Sochi.
“Right now I’m just focused on what I need to do, trying to think of it as another race,” Kurka said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. Maybe it’ll hit when I get there.”