If there was a moment when Larisa Yurkiw figured a career’s worth of pain and toil might finally kill her passion for ski racing, maybe it was on the comeback trail in Chile in 2011.
A couple of years earlier Yurkiw, then a regular on the World Cup downhill circuit, had seen her Vancouver-bound Olympic dream torn apart like so many ligaments and tendons in a left knee catastrophically damaged in a 2009 crash. She had cried hard when the torch relay passed the front door of her family’s home in Owen Sound that December, hobbled and depressed as the Olympic flame proceeded without her to that great Canadian party in the West. And in the ensuing two years she would endure multiple rehabilitations from a series of surgeries to repair her speed-savaged knee, the worst of which left a nasty scar the length of two index fingers that still bisects her leg.
She would be faithful to her physiotherapy. She would do everything right. But still, when she tucked into those South American slopes in 2011, all she felt was an unbearable sting. She was relying on so much anti-inflammatory medication that she suffered an ulcer. If this was where she stood after nearly two years in recovery, maybe recovery wasn’t for her.
“The snow was so hard, and the vibrations through my skis just made my knee feel like it was bleeding inside,” Yurkiw remembered. “I was one more (pill) away from quitting. It’s like I could feel every ligament that had been repaired, and that’s not something you should feel. That was the training camp where I thought, ‘It’s too much to ask of my knee to do an extreme sport like this.’”
But two years later, Yurkiw is still pursuing excellence while hurtling down mountains at 130 km/h. Her goal is to land a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. And while she says her knee is now back to full strength and pain-free, getting there is not likely to be painless. In April she was dropped from Canada’s national team despite being the reigning national downhill champion, the odd woman out in a medal-focused system that has little use for veteran Olympic long shots.
Discouraged but undeterred, she is mounting her own program – Team Larisa, she is calling it – in an attempt to keep her five-ringed aspirations alive. It is not as far-fetched as it may sound. If Yurkiw can raise sufficient sponsorship to foot the approximately $100,000 it will cost to get her and a coach on the World Cup tour this fall, she’s confident she can produce sufficient performances to earn an Olympic berth.
“The national team gave me a lot of great years,” said Yurkiw, 25. “But I need one more.”
The national team isn’t willing to give her an Olympic chance and they have their reasons. Speaking over the phone from Europe recently, Max Gartner, the president ofCanada’s alpine ski team, said his organization is committed to putting its limited funding behind a) athletes with the best chance of winning medals at the Sochi Games or b) prospects with at least another Olympics in their future. The philosophy has been adopted by Canada’s Olympic sporting federations at large, and it’s been more than successful. Canada’s team in Sochi will be attempting to follow up a watershed Vancouver Games where the host country topped the gold-medal table. But owning the podium comes with fallout.
“It leaves us with some tough decisions. And Larisa, that was probably the toughest one we had to make,” Gartner said.
Gartner said Yurkiw’s results on the World Cup tour last season weren’t good enough. She failed to break into the key top 30 and earn precious points; her best finish in the downhill was a 37th in St. Anton, Austria. By those calculations, there’s no realistic hope she’d be a top-three contender in Sochi. So even though she won the national downhill championship back in March – even though she managed the feat in the wake of a monumental climb back from an injury that tore nearly every piece of connective tissue in her knee – she is not in Canada’s plan for Sochi. Canada’s alpine contingent hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1994, and they’re under considerable pressure to end that streak.
“It’s not about participating. It’s about showing we can compete and win medals,” Gartner said. “For a sport to be relevant and getting the funding we need from the corporate sector and the government, we need to be winning. We want role models that are out there winning and inspiring young Canadians to follow in their footsteps and follow their dreams. … Our mission statement is to win medals for Canada.”
Yurkiw’s mission statement, these days, is to drum up interest in her pursuit, both by promoting her website (larisayurkiw.com) and by reaching out to the corporate community with a sponsorship drive. Her hope is that the funding she scares up, along with the coach it will afford her, will make her an attractive addition to the national program of another country. In that scenario, she would still race under the Canadian flag, but would do so using the infrastructure of her host country, an arrangement that’s not uncommon in elite skiing.
What it means, in the near term, is that, along with doing daily bouts of intense dryland training at York University this month in the lead-up to training in the Swiss Alps in July, she is also dealing with details most athletes never have to fathom. She is pricing travel itineraries and equipment and the like, all while doing her best to widen her network of potential benefactors.
“Why is she doing it? She said to me, ‘Mom, when I’m 80 years old I don’t want to look back at this thinking I could have done more to realize this dream,’” Lynda Yurkiw said. “So if she tries her hardest and she bangs on doors and she gets a program going or if it can’t happen, then she’ll at least know she did what she could.”
No matter how it goes, it’s already a comeback worth celebrating. Since her injury she has competed in parts of two seasons on the World Cup circuit, no small feat considering that when she was first injured one of her initial goals was to be able to walk without a limp for the rest of her life.
Yurkiw won’t be doing this forever; he said she has ambitions to get an education and to raise a family. But as she explained her motivation for this one last run at an Olympic debut, she spoke of a flame that burns inside every dedicated athlete.
“It’s never gone out for me,” she said. “Staying in the sport is a choice. I’m trying to give myself the chance to be brilliant in my next chapter because I did my best in my last chapter.”
Her favourite movie is Seabiscuit, the horse-racing classic about the small colt who became a Depression-era symbol of possibility.
“(In the movie) the jockey has a blind eye and the horse has a bad ankle, but they both have a lot of spirit,” said Dennis Yurkiw, her father. “I think she has that image of herself, that she’s got problems, but not enough to keep her out of the race. She’s our Seabiscuit.”
Seabiscuit was a big winner, of course, and everybody loves one. Yurkiw won her share of races growing up, but even when she was a decorated junior, she said the journey through the sport meant more to her than the results. Canada’s Olympic philosophy has changed in our bottom-line era, and maybe it is, by and large, for the good. But there’s something admirable, something as inspiring as any gold-medal turn, about the way Yurkiw is chasing her own goal on her own terms. An Olympic medal would be an amazing achievement, the end of an epic story. But after all her pain and toil, in the last act of a global career that’s seen her broken and rebuilt, it’s good of her to remind her compatriots that there’s beauty, too, in simply staying in the race.