Growing up, Andrew Kurka wanted to be an Olympic wrestler. But an ATV accident he had when he was 13 years old derailed those plans somewhat. The accident, which happened in 2005, broke his back and left him paralyzed. A couple years later though, a physical therapist would introduce him to skiing. He soon connected with Challenge Alaska, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA near his home town, and realized he might be able to once again compete on behalf of Team USA.
Kurka would start alpine racing when he was around 17 years of age. “My very first race program took place at Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge (Colorado) in 2009,” he said of Disabled Sports USA’s annual event, one of the largest adaptive winter sports events in the country. In 2011, he was named to Disabled Sports USA’s E-Team which supports and empowers emerging youth athletes (ages 13-24) with disabilities who are training competitively in sports that are featured in the Paralympic Games. And at the age of 19, he made the U.S. National Team. Kurka has always been drawn independent sports vs. team sports, where you can directly reap the fruits of your labor. “I feel like I work a lot harder than many out there.”
In 2014, Kurka was set to compete for the United States in Sochi when he broke his back again training for the event. So his dream to be a Paralympian would have to wait, at least another four years. “It has been a difficult four years,” he said.
The time is right to fulfill his dreams. Kurka will be heading to PyeongChang, South Korea to compete in the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games. “Alaska has never had a Paralympic Gold Medalist and I want to change that,” he said.
A lot of work has been put into training this year. “We have a new strength and conditioning coach who is getting us prepared to peak at the right time.” He has focused on aerobic activity and strength conditioning, with an increased workload at the beginning and then decreasing it after that. “It is all about peak performance,” Kurka said.
The World Cup tour has been pretty extensive this year, including competitions in Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, and others. But Kurka was only able to compete in about a third of them given the conditions of the courses. “I am a big speed racer and most of the courses this year have been technical in nature,” he said. “My advantage is with heavy terrain… it fits my skiing style.”
PyeongChang is a very technical hill too, but his training with the Aspen Valley Ski Club is prepping him well. Kurka considers himself a “24 Hour Athlete.” “I have this mindset that is focused on learning, “he said. “You can learn from whatever you are doing, good or bad.”
Of course his training regimen includes working out and eating healthy, but it also includes cycling and relaxing. During the off season, cycling and fishing serves as a nice distraction for Kurka. “It allows me to focus on skiing when the time comes and ensures that it doesn’t get boring or tiresome.”
His training, his philosophy, and his work ethic is paying off. At the final World Para Alpine Skiing World Cup event of the season in Kimberley, Canada, Kurka took home two gold medals, one in Super G and one in Downhill. Both of those events are considered to be his favorite and his best. But in South Korea, Kurka plans on competing in all five events, which also includes Slalom, Giant Slalom, and Combined. “I have a chance to podium at each of the events,” he said.
Beyond competing, Kurka has other goals he wants to accomplish, including helping others. “I want to get young people with disabilities into sports.” He also wants to own a bed and breakfast in his native state of Alaska so others can enjoy cycling and fishing too.