Everyone has childhood dreams. But few pursue theirs with the fervor Andrew Kurka does.
That’s what made Russia’s Paralympic Games in March so devastating for the 22-year-old Palmer man.
Kurka suffered compression fractures on his T-5 and T-6 vertebrae during a training run for the men’s sit-skiing downhill race in Sochi, ending his quest to be crowned best in the world.
The injury didn’t hold Kurka back for long.
Doctors cleared him to exercise six weeks after the crash and OK’d him for full competition last month, Kurka said Thursday, the same day he was named to the 2014-15 U.S. Paralympic alpine ski team.
Kurka, who was partially paralyzed in a four-wheeling accident at 13, is entering his third season with the national team with a new approach – to consistently finish races.
In the past, Kurka said, his main focus was roaring down a mountain as fast as possible. That strategy led to victories, none bigger than his first World Cup gold medal at race in British Columbia in January.
But that approached also caused plenty of crashes, Kurka said.
Now, the focus will be on finishing each race, preferably in the top five. Kurka said he wants to start training to ski “reined in” to better prepare himself for a shot at gold at the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea.
“I just need to find that fine line,” he said.
Despite winning World Cup gold and making his Paralympic debut this year, Kurka is confident the upcoming season will be his best yet. The world championships are in Panorama, British Columbia, the place where he earned his World Cup victory. “I’m really looking forward to this year,” he said.
Because of his crash in Sochi, it will be a comeback season. Kurka said a poor approach to a jump launched him 40 to 50 off the ground and sent him 100 to 180 feet down the mountain. The landing broke his skis and his back.
He wasn’t the only victim.
Juneau’s Joe Tompkins, a four-time Paralympian, crashed in a training run on the same day as Kurka's accident, and 10 of 22 racers failed to finish the men’s race the following day.
“The course was super rough,” Kurka said. “You had to hold back” – something that doesn’t come naturally to him. “My coaches tell me all the time I have an innate sense of speed,” he said.
The injury wasn’t the first time Kurka has been hurt while competing in adaptive sports. He broke a vertebrae in 2011 during a training run at the Winter X Games in Aspen.
“My biggest fault is I have no fear,” he said.
The latest injury was more damaging psychologically than physically, he said. After all, it happened in the biggest competition of his career.
But as he has in the past, Kurka resumed training – which includes a heavy dose of swimming and biking in the summer – with an upbeat attitude.
“I’ve always said and truly believe that momentum is the strongest thing we have going for us,” he said. “If I fall, I’ll always fall forward.”
This summer, Kurka is home enjoying time with his family, doing plenty of fishing and even water skiing at Finger Lake at a recent Challenge Alaska event.
Next month, Kurka leaves for training camps in Chile, Austria and Colorado. Competition begins early next year, and Kurka is eager for another chance to bring gold back to Alaska.
“That’s something I’m still driving towards,” he said.
Contact Mike Nesper at email@example.com or 257-4335.