For Andrew Kurka, a five-time state wrestling champion, going to the Olympic Games had always been a dream.
Now, only a month away from the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Kurka has a chance to accomplish that dream. Just for a different sport.
“Before I got injured, before I broke my back, before I even started skiing, I was a wrestler and going to the Olympics, getting the chance to represent my country and be the best in the world has always been my objective,” Kurka said. “It’s my dream, the thing I’ve looked forward to and worked so hard for.”
Entering his fourth season as a sitting skier, the 21 year old from Alaska has moved on from state championships. He is currently ranked eighth in the world in the men’s super-G sitting and seventh in the men’s downhill sitting events.
But for Kurka, the rankings are only part of the story.
“World ranking doesn’t matter to me all that much because it’s not really a goal of mine,” he said. “The goals I have now I think are much bigger than that, like gold in Sochi or getting a couple of medals at world cups. I don’t really care about world rankings any more.”
Kurka is well on his way towards his new goals. Only two weeks ago, he notched his first ever world cup win at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in Panorama, B.C. The win, along with his performance in previous world cups, has mathematically qualified Kurka for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team, which will be officially announced the first week of February.
Kurka’s success isn’t surprising to his supporters back home or his teammates on the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team. Only five years removed from an accident that caused the loss of movement in his lower legs, Kurka is known for his lack of fear and his speed.
“I love going fast,” he said. “I’ve always been naturally good at it. I know how to look for speed. I’ve never had fear. That helps me, because I try to find speed wherever I can and if you watch video of other people, they don’t. That would be my biggest advantage.”
A lack of fear has helped Kurka transition from a national champion wrestler to an internationally competitive skier. And what forced him to make the transition in the first place.
“I broke my back in a 4-wheel accident was I was 13 years old and it paralyzed my knees and my ankles,” Kurka said. “It was completely unexpected. I was heading out fishing and to get to the fishing spot we were heading up a pretty steep hill and this time I just happened to have my buddy on the back with me. It was a little bit more than I was expecting and it flipped. It landed on my head; it crushed my skull and compressed my spinal cord.”
It took six months and two surgeries until Kurka was allowed out of the hospital. During rehabilitation, Kurka’s physical therapist paid for his first skiing lesson with Challenge Alaska, a non-profit Paralympic Sport Club focused on sports for those with Paralympic eligible impairments. It was there that Kurka realized his Olympic dreams could still be fulfilled.
“To be honest, I didn’t really want to ski,” he said. “It wasn’t really athletic enough; it didn’t have much to do with wrestling… My physical therapist talked me into it, and once I did it, it blew my mind.”
Even though skiing and wrestling share little in common, Kurka has found something that wrestling never offered: speed.
“Honestly I got in trouble a few times when I first started because I would just straight-line the mountain,” he said. “I went up to the very top of the mountain when I wasn’t ready.”
With his fearlessness and speed, Kurka is focused on not just competing, but winning a medal in Sochi. And he already knows that he’ll give any medal he earns to the group that first introduced him to the Paralympics and kept his dreams alive: Challenge Alaska.
“That’s how I found out about the Paralympics… The Paralympic Movement was just starting to get big at that time, and I got into it right at the right time. I saw it as my opportunity to just change my dreams a little bit. I went from wanting to be a contractor and architect to being a radio DJ because it’s something I could use my voice for, didn’t have to use my legs for,” he said.
“It just helped me realize that if I switched things around I could be just as successful.”
Kurka and Team USA next compete at the IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup in Tignes, France from Jan. 27-31.The U.S. team that will compete in alpine skiing at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will be named in February.