By DAVE FESCHUK Sports Columnist
Fri., Feb. 6, 2015
In a lot of ways, Larisa Yurkiw was born for days like Friday, when she competed against her sport’s elite at skiing’s world championships in Beaver Creek, Colo.
Yurkiw, who’s from Owen Sound, first hopped aboard a pair of skis at age 2, first raced at age 4, first made the national team at 16. And all along the way, if there were ups and downs, national titles and grand disappointments, she built a reputation as a driven athlete not to be deterred. Jurg Gfeller, one of Yurkiw’s instructors at the formative National Ski Academy, said he still remembers the assuredness in Yurkiw’s voice when, at age 14, she announced great competitive intentions on a snowy slope in Collingwood.
“Larisa grabbed me on my arm and said, ‘I’m going all the way, and I need your help. But I’m going,’ ” Gfeller was saying this week. “I went, ‘Wow.’ . . . I’ve been all my life in ski development. And I know that look — it’s something special. But there’s a lot of talented kids. It doesn’t mean it always works out.”
It was about a year ago in Sochi that it looked like it might be finally working out for Yurkiw. Cut from the Canadian national team 10 months earlier because officials didn’t believe in her potential as a podium possibility, she’d been cast aside as a has-been at age 25. But while it was hardly her first major setback — in 2009 she’d suffered a catastrophic knee injury that kept her out of the 2010 Olympics — she refused to quit on her passion. Yurkiw courted sponsors and raised about $150,000, enough to hire a coach and compete independently on the World Cup circuit, where she achieved the criteria required to represent Canada on that Russian mountain range.
If the Olympics were ultimately a disappointment — she finished 20th in downhill competing on a knee that would require post-Games surgery — she said the journey to them “changed her life.” She’d achieved her goal. She’d made it to her sport’s pinnacle. And yet, in one important way, she hadn’t.
Just when she was revelling in the accomplishment — eating pizza at the Sochi airport, thinking she’d regained a spot on Canada’s national ski team — she met Canadian officials bearing bad news. Though she’d achieved results good enough to qualify for the Canadian speed-skiing team for the coming 2014-15 World Cup season, there was a problem: There were no plans to operate a Canadian women’s speed-skiing team. Though Canada is home to a proud history of world-class women’s downhillers, a shortage of talent meant the governing federation had concluded that it couldn’t afford to build a team around one athlete. If Yurkiw wanted to keep at it, she realized in that moment, she’d be on her own again.
“After everything I did, it wasn’t enough. There was nothing to earn, in the end,” Yurkiw said in an interview before the current World Cup season began. “It was all a surprise, for sure.”
A year after that surprise, Yurkiw is repeating her unlikely cycle again, and with even more impressive results. Heading into this week’s world championships, where she finished 14th in a Friday downhill won by Slovenia’s Tina Maze, Yurkiw was among the top 10 point-getters on the World Cup downhill standings. Last month she finished second in a race in Italy, her career-best performance at age 26. In December she placed fourth in a race at Whistler.
She has soared to these new heights training alongside a team of fellow athletes whose home countries lack the necessary infrastructure. Among her teammates are Norwegians and Germans and a Swede, frequent road roommate Kajsa Kling.
If they’re all in similar circumstances, there are differences.
“The big difference is (Kling) is supported by her federation,” said Yurkiw.
There are voices in the Canadian ski community who believe Yurkiw should be afforded the same financial courtesy by hers. Nancy Greene Raine, the 71-year-old senator who won alpine gold for Canada at the 1968 Olympics, said Canada’s sporting bureaucrats should find a way to fund athletes in Yurkiw’s situation. Insiders say it costs about $160,000 — including $80,000 for a coach’s salary and $80,000 in coach and athlete travel — to compete in a World Cup season.
“The least they should do for someone like Larisa — for the best in the country — is pay for them to go and train with another team,” said Greene Raine. “Don’t leave it up to the poor athlete to have to go and fund raise. Give some support financially.”
Max Gartner was the CEO of Alpine Canada when Yurkiw was cut from the team in the lead-up to Sochi; at the time he called Yurkiw’s release the “toughest” pre-Olympic personnel decision he and his colleagues had to make. Though Gartner has since moved on from the post — he’s now in the high-performance coaching business — he believes the national governing body should have found a way to reintegrate Yurkiw into the program after her run to Sochi.
“What she’s done on her own could have been done within the team structure, easily,” Gartner said. “I think everybody would feel better about it. She personifies what it means to fall down, dust yourself off and keep going . . . To me, she proved a lot of people wrong and I applaud her for that.”
Alpine Canada, to be fair, offered Yurkiw a spot on this year’s combined team, made up of skiers who generally compete in the more technical slalom and giant slalom events but also dabble in the speed disciplines of downhill and super-G. Yurkiw deemed it an unsuitable arrangement for a committed downhill specialist. Paul Kristofic, vice-president of sports for Alpine Canada, said the organization hopes to have a women’s speed-skiing team in future years.
“We’re building it, but at the World Cup level we don’t have that critical mass of athletes to have a stand-alone speed team,” Kristofic said in an interview before the World Cup season. “That’s not to say we don’t have a strategy in the next few years to build it back up, but it’s going to take a bit of time.”
Why the dry spell? The reasons are complex, but they certainly include an injury epidemic that struck the national team in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Yurkiw, along with teammate Kelly VanderBeek and men’s world champion John Kucera, were among 10 Canadian alpinists lost to long-term injuries over a span of less than two years. The carnage, attributed to uber-macho race courses and changes in equipment regulations among other things, was so alarming that Canadian skiing’s overseers held a summit to address the rash of hurt. Among the outcomes: a new developmental policy that discouraged athletes younger than 18 from competing in speed events.
The move was controversial. Gartner said he felt “responsible” for the well-being of athletes and remains “proud” of the action, which he said included a new emphasis on speed-skills training for would-be elites. Some say the age restriction, which has since been undone, had unwanted consequences. Kristofic and Greene Raine said top-class race organizers in Canada often found that, with an effective age limit employed, they couldn’t attract enough competitors, which left up-and-comers without ready opportunities for competition.
“Race organizers basically closed their doors for a couple of years and said, ‘Financially, we can’t do this,’ ” said Kristofic.
There are other possible reasons for the downswing in speed depth, which hasn’t been as pronounced among this country’s men, who still have the benefit of a full-service speed program that helped Ottawa newcomer Dustin Cook become the first Canadian to win a world championship medal in super-G, a silver on Thursday.
There’s the cyclical nature of sports. And there’s also the reality that sponsorship money is difficult to drum up in the years between Winter Olympics, especially since Canada’s alpine team came away from Sochi with only Jan Hudec’s super-G bronze, the team’s first bit of Olympic hardware since 1994.
“It’s the ongoing saga of amateur sports in Canada,” said Brian Stemmle, the four-time speed-skiing Olympian turned TV analyst. “People are just competing for every (sponsorship) penny . . . And there’s better looking stuff out there (for sponsors) than one bronze medal. But it’s always been tough.”
Yurkiw knows how tough it can be more than most. Long before this World Cup season began she spent her summer doing double duty. In the mornings she rehabbed her surgically repaired knee in Toronto at a gym near Yonge and Eglinton. After workouts, she’d often rush to meetings with potential sponsors.
“It’s not always comfortable. It’s not what I like to do — come straight from the gym and throw on a blazer and dry my hair in the car and go meet a CEO,” she said. “But I’ve learned a ton.”
She learned, for one thing, that she was fighting a misconception: Her sponsors figured her Olympic berth and World Cup success meant she’d be back in the fold with a nationally funded program. When she came knocking for more money, many were surprised.
“The campaign never stops,” Yurkiw said. “It’s an ongoing network that has to be nurtured. I’m the driving force. I do have to keep my finger on a lot of things that a lot of skiers don’t have to touch. And my coach has assumed a role that most ski coaches don’t necessarily have to assume.”
Along with analyzing video and supervising training, her coach, Kurt Mayr, also takes care of other departments: finance and accounting, to name a couple. That Yurkiw and Mayr have achieved her best results this season speaks to the value of perseverance and patience and the plain-old determination Yurkiw has been showing since she was a kid.
Gfeller, Yurkiw’s coach at the National Ski Academy, said he was happy to have lunch with his former pupil this past summer, when he heard the same “I’m going all the way” assuredness in her words.
“I said, ‘Larisa, tell me honestly, what’s your goal now? You achieved the Olympics. You’re still struggling.’ She looked me in the eye and said, ‘I believe I can win the World Cup,’ ” Gfeller said. “And for me that was an answer to say, ‘Keep going.’ She’s a big star in Europe now. They want to help her, support her, but they just think it’s unbelievable that here in Canada we couldn’t.”
Said Yurkiw: “It’s less that I want to win because I want to know I’m the best in the world. It’s more like I want to win because it’s so important that people see that you can come from a small town; that you don’t have to be exceptional; that you can have a ton of bumps in the road — and that you can still believe in yourself so that you achieve your gut feeling about yourself, your highest passion.
“I feel lucky that I’m so sure about what I believe in.”
Canada should feel lucky that she’s sure, too. Many are born to it. Only a few refuse to rest until they live it to its fullest.