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Mono-skier Kurka on fast track to Sochi

Beth Bragg
Andrew Kurka races in the DSUSA 2012 NORAM races. Kurka, a skier from Palmer, made the 2014 paralympics team.
Reed Hoffmann
Andrew Kurka
Photo courtesy of Andrew Kurka

Like a lot of 21-year-olds, Andrew Kurka of Palmer shares the events of his life, large and small, on YouTube.

There's a 2009 video of him skiing Alyeska's North Face, one of him jumping into Finger Lake at the 2010 Polar Plunge, another from 2010 showing him winning a bodybuilding contest, and one from this year's Arctic Man. And from 2012, there's a how-to video in which he demonstrates how to walk up and down stairs in leg braces.

During the summer of 2005, when he was 13, Kurka suffered a spinal injury while riding a four-wheeler at Jim Creek. The four-wheeler landed on top of him, leaving him partially paralyzed. "My legs don't work below my knees," Kurka said.

And so he skis double-black-diamond runs on a mono-ski, flexes for adoring bodybuilding crowds while sitting in a wheelchair, and jumps into ice-cold water while in the arms of a buddy who makes the plunge with him.

If Kurka could pick the time and place for his next big video release, it would be March at the Paralymics in Sochi, Russia.

Kurka last week was named to the U.S. Paralympics alpine ski team for the second straight year, which keeps him on the fast track for a spot on the U.S. team that will compete next year in Sochi.

The team won't be named until early next year, but Kurka is confident he'll be on it. Team selection will be based largely on rankings, and Kurka ranks in the top 10 worldwide and top three in the United States in downhill and super-G.

"Technically, I am qualified," he said. "As of now there are no other races where people will be able to surpass my standings."

Kurka will join the U.S. team at training camps in Chile and Austria this fall and then will compete in a series of World Cup races in Europe leading up to the Paralympics, which begin soon after the Winter Olympics end. It will be Kurka's biggest, busiest season since he learned to ski through Challenge Alaska when he was 16.

In his first season with the ski team, Kurka vaulted into the world rankings in downhill and super-G, putting himself in a great position heading into the Paralympics season. He thinks he'll ski even better this season knowing that a spot on the Sochi team is his for the taking.

"It helps my focus, it really does," he said. "You'd think it would decrease my focus but in all honesty it relaxes me, and I race better when I'm relaxed. It's about taking that pressure off and knowing that's where I'm going to be and that my dream is just a grasp away."

The dream goes back many years, and at first it involved the Olympics and a wrestling mat.

The Jim Creek accident altered the dream. The Olympics became the Paralympics, and skiing took the place of wrestling.

Kurka, a former state champion in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling (he even won a state title after his injury, wrestling against able-bodied competitors), was told he would never walk again, but he defied his doctors. By 2009, four years after the accident, he was walking with the help of crutches and leg braces.

His recovery efforts earned him selection as one of the Children's Miracle Network's 50 "miracle children" in 2007. "That was my very first job," he said.

These days Kurka fills in as a radio announcer for 100.9 FM in Palmer when he isn't off training or racing somewhere. He lived in Aspen, Colo., last season, but he's going to make Alaska his base this season, which will allow him more opportunities to represent Challenge Alaska, one of his primary sponsors and the group that helped get Kurka on skis after his accident.

It will also let him spend more time with younger brother Christian, a 13-year-old who wrestles and plays football. "I don't want to miss my brother growing up," he said.

Kurka wants to be a professional mono-skier and he wants to open doors for other adaptive athletes. He's already made strides in achieving the latter of those goals: after competing in his first Arctic Man Classic in 2012, Kurka recruited four other adaptive skiers for this year's race, creating the first adaptive division in the extreme ski/snowmachine race in the HooDoo Mountains.

Viewed as a whole, Kurka's YouTube videos show a man with irrepressible spirit, humor, a taste for the spotlight and an unlimited supply of nerve.

"I've never had fear," said Kurka, who not long after learning to ski was roaring down Alyeska's Christmas Chute, a run the Daily Beast rates as one of the 13 most dangerous in the world. "I've never been afraid. It's an attribute and downfall at the same time. There's a fine line between crazy and stupid, but I definitely lean toward crazy."

For proof, let's go to the video.

In 2011, Kurka was in Aspen for the Winter X Games when he crashed during training and broke a vertebrae. The damage was minimal and Kurka resolved to get back to the X Games. He made it to the semifinals of the mono-cross at the 2012 before wiping out on a jump, a spill that was captured in his most-viewed video offering to date.

The X Games, Kurka said, are by far the most fun thing he's done as a racer.

"In enjoy jumping off things, doing crazy stuff, having fun," he said.

But the ultimate experience, he said, would be the Paralympics.

"It's the honor and the pride behind it," he said. "At the X Games, I wear my own clothes. At the (Paralympics), I'm representing my country. The glory lasts forever."

Even without being preserved on YouTube.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.



What is a monoski?

Also known as a sit-ski, a monoski is a molded seat mounted on a metal frame and attached by a shock absorbers to a single, regular alpine ski. Instead of poles, skiers like Kurka use outriggers -- forearm crutches with a short ski on the bottom.

Alaska vs. the world
International Paralympic Committee world rankings

Men's sit-ski downhill
8th -- Andrew Kurka
11th - Gregory Peck, Wasilla
13th -- Joe Tompkins, Juneau

Men's sit-ski super-G
8th -- Andrew Kurka

 

Kurka's YouTube videos
By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com