ASPEN, Colo. — Palmer’s Andrew Kurka has his sights set on gold. The 26-year-old decorated paralympic skier is preparing to compete in five events at the Paralympic games in PyeongChang in March, wary of where he’s been and confident of where he wants to go.
“I really, really want to bring back the first paralympic medal for Alaska, and I really want it to be a gold,” said Kurka. “I want to go in with a positive mindset knowing that I can and will succeed. Finishing is really what I’m looking for, even though I am a medal contender in all 5 events, I’m looking forward to a positive race and I really want to get rid of that black cloud that’s been hanging over me.”
The black cloud he’s speaking of came four years ago. Preparing to compete in the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Kurka suffered a broken back during his first training run. Since then, he has been hard at work winning medals on the World Cup circuit in preparation to medal at the Pyeongchang games.
Kurka was trained as a wrestler before he broke his back at 13 years old in an ATV accident, losing use of his legs. He quickly recovered to become one of the best sit-skiers in the world.
“I said skiing is for pansies — I’m a wrestler. I went down the mountain the first time and I loved it. They said you know, you have a chance to be the best in the world at this, said Kurka. “I owe a lot of this to Anne Thomas at Body and Balance. If I never had that initial push into it I wouldn’t be here right now, but I’m extremely thankful that I am here right now,”
Andrew Kurka sits in rarified air, both figuratively and literally. Kurka will scream down the mountain at speeds up to 70 miles per hour with two small skis on each arm and one under him. After completing physical therapy and getting started with Challenge, Alaska more than 10 years ago, Kurka has third place finishes in the Super G each of the last two years at the World Championships. Kurka finished second in Giant Slalom and first in Downhill at last year’s World Championships. He won last year’s World Cup Final in Super G and both Super G and Downhill at this year’s World Cup Final.
The Paralympic games will start March 9. According to Kurka, the events move in descending order from his best to worst, or his “A+ to A- events.”
He prefers the downhill, which features high speeds and big airs. Next will be the Super G, one of Kurka’s favorites.
“You’re doing 40 meter plus turns, still nuking, there’s a lot more technicality. You only get one inspection and one run, so it’s one of the most technical events but also one of my best events,” said Kurka.
Next Kurka will compete in the Super Combined which is a Super G run combined with a Slalom run, which features 14 meter radius turns. He will finish with the Giant Slalom with 30-meter radius turns, and the Slalom. The schedule is spaced so that Kurka can rest or tend to injury, if need be. He guaranteed that he will not skip the Downhill, Super G or Super Combined.
Kurka is excited at the chance to realize his dream of becoming an Olympic champion. He is grateful to his home state, and eager to cheer on the newest Alaskan Paralympian, Grace Miller, who will compete on cross-country skis.
“I am teased about it constantly when I’m on the World Cup circuit, but its my home, I miss it, I love it, and the people there help to make it that way and that’s what it’s truly all about for me,” said Kurka. “I’ve heard a lot and now to see her going to Pyeongchang with me is going to be awesome. I’m going to be watching her and going to be cheering her on, I’m sure she’s going to love this sport and she’s going to go for it.”
Kurka’s fearless demeanor on the mountain helped him win a World Cup race last weekend by twelve-hundredths of a second, but small margins of victory are nothing new to him. Kurka’s victory in the World Cup Finals over Jesper Pedersen of Norway was nothing compared to winning four races all by under one tenth of one second, which he did in 2017. Kurka’s toughest competition will come from Pedersen and Taiki Morii and Akira Kano of Japan. Kurka said his close call in Canada should be a thing of the past once the Paralympics come around. The course in Kimberley was flatter at the top, allowing those with more disability to maintain speed. The factoring system gives competitors with a higher disability a different factor than those with more function and lower disability, which plays into their final time and score.
“Luckily I was able to recover with a lot of aerodynamics and cutting off a lot of line in certain areas and the coaching staff was able to help me with that. We have some of the best coaches in the world and they were able to help me decide where the right place to go for those risks were,” said Kurka.
Kurka is one of the best in the world because of his work ethic. After rehabilitating numerous injuries, he is poised to sit atop the world’s stage as the premier Paralympic Downhill Skier.
“They call me fearless on the world cup circuit, ‘Crazy Kurka.’ I go for it in those situations and a lot of that comes from my focus and my preparation and my train of thought. It all comes from my preparation. I ‘prepare prior proper planning’. I’m prepared before i go there. When I’m about to push out of the start gate I don’t think about crashing, I think about what I need to do to do it the best and it cancels out my fear because there’s no time for that negative thinking,” said Kurka.
Kurka is happy to be where he is, and thankful for the community that introduced him to sit-skiing more than ten years ago. Kurka said if he wasn’t sit-skiing, he would probably try to make the Paralympic sled-hockey team, as he loves the physicality of the sport.
“This gave me a new path and gave me the dream of wanting to be the best in the world. That’s when I realized what I was truly capable of in a sit ski and that was ten years ago at Challenge Alaska,” said Kurka.
Kurka encourages those with disability to get into sports. He says he loves receiving text messages and phone calls of encouragement even more than comments on social media, and hopes his fellow Alaskans will watch and cheer on the U.S. Paralympic team March 9. The games will air on NBC and Paralympics.org.
“If they know someone who is disabled or would benefit from being a paralympic athlete, get them into a sport as soon as possible. It could make a huge difference for their overall confidence in their lives,” said Kurka.