Gung Ho, Gritty – And a Big Heart
World champion mono skier Andrew Kurka loves speed. He loves the adrenaline rush of his sport and the demands it places upon him both physically and psychologically. He also loves the unique opportunity he has to be an example for others.
“There are a lot of children with injuries and disabilities,” Andrew said. “I want to be the individual they can reach out to, who can show what's possible.”
After all, if Andrew could overcome, others like him can overcome, too.
For most of his childhood, there were no limitations to what Andrew could do. A native of Alaska, Andrew was an active kid who grew up fishing and hunting. He was also a wrestler, and won six Alaskan state wrestling championships by the time he was a teenager. He aspired to qualify for the Olympic Games one day.
But then one fateful day when he was 13, Andrew was in an all-terrain vehicle accident that broke three vertebrae in his back and instantly paralyzed his legs. Andrew's doctors thought he would never walk again.
But miracles are possible. With grit, determination and after much physical therapy, Andrew was walking on crutches within two years of the accident, and the sensation had been restored to his legs.
“It was very difficult at first,” Andrew said, looking back on the early days following his injury, “but there were a lot of meaningful moments that helped me grow and become determined, and that's what got me up on crutches.”
The Alaska Children's Miracle Network took notice of Andrew's story and recruited him to be their “miracle child.” Andrew traveled widely, sharing his story with children whose futures were uncertain.
At the age of 15, Andrew discovered downhill sit-skiing at the urging of his physical therapist. One venture out on a mono ski and Andrew was hooked.
“I went in a straight line down the mountain,” he said. “I crashed at the bottom and was in love with the sport. I was told of the Paralympics at the time. It was an opportunity to fulfill my dreams. It gave me new hope.”
Andrew made the U.S. Paralympic Team Sochi 2014. But he was a speed demon and his daring started to work against him. In a practice run at Sochi, Andrew broke his back for a third time. Eight months later, he snapped his femur in another downhill accident, and that's when he hit bottom – and knew something had to change. He had to slow down.
“I've always been extremely gung-ho – trying my best,” Andrew said. “I don't want to have any regrets in the end, but failure has forced me to look at the world in a different way, both physically and mentally. I have had to learn to moderate a little bit.”
A strategy of moderation has paid off with consistent results. In 2017 alone, Andrew won 13 medals in international competitions and three at the World Championships in Tarvisio, Italy – one gold, one silver and one bronze – and is currently ranked the number-one sit skier in the world. He's hoping to qualify for Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, where he hopes to capture the Paralympic medal that eluded him in 2014.
But ultimately, winning matters less to Andrew than doing his best and showing what's possible with Paralympic sport. Off the slopes, Andrew is a mentor and coach for Classroom Champions, a national program for kids in underserved communities; Challenge Alaska, which improves the lives of people with disabilities through adaptive sports; and the Semper Fi program for wounded military veterans.
He's grateful for the support of his sponsors, such as The Hartford, which enables him to fulfill his mission.
“It gives me hope to have people like The Hartford standing behind me and believing in what I'm doing,” Andrew said. “I try to live a selfless life and make a difference, and the people who believe in this cause makes my purpose more meaningful and helps me reach more people.
“Through everything that's happened to me, I'm able to be an example – and give others the will to prevail, too.”
The Hartford has been a founding partner of U.S. Paralympics and a title sponsor of The Hartford Ski Spectacular for over two decades. We believe the will to prevail is strong in each and every one of us and pushes us forward in the face of adversity. Our incredible team of U.S. Paralympians embody what the will to prevail really means.
The Hartford® is The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries including issuing companies Hartford Life Insurance Company and Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company. Home Office is Hartford, CT. 6839q NS 11/17. 36USC220506
Photo by Julie Bidwell