Canadian Olympic skier Larisa Yurkiw conquers mountain
7 February 2014, The Toronto Star
SOCHI, RUSSIA—Larisa Yurkiw, Canada’s great underdog of an Olympic alpine skier, was mulling over the reality of racing against the world’s best.
“Sport is so selfish,” Yurkiw said. “You have to put yourself first. But everyone who’s close to me and loves me says that this is the time to be selfish. There’s plenty of time to give back. And I do whenever I can.”
If the 25-year-old from Owen Sound was thinking about giving back, speaking on the phone from Austria only days before going to Sochi, perhaps it’s because she’s the first to acknowledge that she’s received so much from so many supporters during her unlikely journey to what we’ve come to consider an individual achievement. A little more than four years ago, Yurkiw was a broken athlete. Having suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the lead-up to the Vancouver Olympics, she watched the torch relay pass her family home. Though she was a long-time member of the national team, she was as much a part of those watershed Games as anyone who watched from a couch.
More than four years later, hers is one of the most inspiring stories in the Canadian sporting canon. Struggling to get top results in her return from the knee injury, she was cut from a medal-focused national team in the spring of 2013. But she wasn’t ready to quit. So she essentially decided to work two jobs — along with training full-time to return to the World Cup circuit, she became CEO of Team Larisa[https://twitter.com/larisaYurkiw]. Injecting $25,000 of her own savings into her training fund, she singlehandedly raised another $100,000-plus, the fruit of a relentless series of pitch meetings with Toronto’s business community. She also hired a coach, booked travel, arranged and paid for lift passes — the minutiae most Olympians leave to support staff.
Friday’s Olympic training run in Sochi piled another duty onto her plate — settling herself after suffering what is being described as a minor ankle injury[http://www.thestar.com/sports/sochi2014/skiing/2014/02/07/comeback_kid_larisa_yurkiw_sprains_ankle_will_still_compete.html] in a mishap. “Just wanted to test out the netting,” she wrote in a cheeky tweet in which she described the ankle as “good to go.” A medal is the goal.
Perhaps she’s come too far, overcome too much, to be daunted by pain of the non-career-threatening variety. Her epic knee surgery, more than a quadrennial ago, was a massive undertaking that required the repair of nearly every piece of connective tissue. Dennis Yurkiw, Larisa’s chiropractor father, recalls speaking on the phone with the surgeon, London, Ont.’s Dr. Bob Litchfield.
“(Litchfield said to me), ‘You know, Dennis, this is a big one. This knee might never be the same,’ ” Dennis said last year. “Larisa was looking at me while I was on the phone, and I had to do a little performance and smile through the whole thing. But I was devastated.”
The recovery was gruelling, a trip to Sochi the furthest thing from an athlete’s thoughts.
“At the beginning, all I wanted was to bend my knee five more degrees,” Larisa said. “And then, for a while, all I wanted was to be able to walk and not have people ask me what was wrong with me. And then you get to the point where you say, ‘Well, I’m getting better — at least now maybe I could ski with my family one day.’ And then you actualy go skiing and you think, ‘Maybe I could go a little faster.’ And then when it became realistic that I could go super-fast again, I did.”
Getting to the point of going super-fast — not to mention achieving the career-best results on this season’s World Cup circuit that qualified her for a spot on Canada’s team at the Games — took a team of contributors. She was put back together by two chiropractor parents — Dennis has been practising with his wife and Larisa’s mother, Lynda, for more than two decades — both of whom offered no end of support. Dennis, said Larisa, “got his books out and learned a ton about knees in order to better help me.” Her mother Lynda, among her myriad parental and clinical services, even leant Larisa a skirt for post-training meetings with prospective sponsors.
And perhaps she would have never found herself on a mountain in Russia this weekend if not for the work of Tom Barbeau, a New Hampshire-based professor of the Burdenko training method[http://www.burdenko.com/], a water and land-based protocol that has helped the likes of Olympic diver Alexandre Despatie and hall of fame basketballer Kevin McHale recover from injuries. After hitting a roadblock in her recovery, Yurkiw drove to Barbeau’s home to begin a regimen of treatment that included a diet spiked with bee pollen and other unconventional fare.
“It was like a boot camp for getting healthy,” she said.
The credits of her Hollywood-worthy bounce-back tale stretch out far longer than can be detailed here. She credits her brothers, Harrison and Mitchell, for their boosterism; her now-deceased cats, Zoe and Nikki, for “vibration therapy and licking the bandages”; physiotherapist Marla Pichler and massage therapist Annalisa Favretto for their good-hearted help. And then there’s her coach, Austrian Kurt Mayr, who didn’t exactly have the benefit of a guaranteed, long-term contract.
“It was like, ‘Kurt, I can pay you for the first (training) camp. Can you come?’ And then, ‘Okay, I’ve raised enough money to pay you for the second camp. Can you come?’ And the day I could say, ‘I’ve actually raised enough money to pay you for the season. Are you excited?’ ” Yurkiw said.
Mayr was excited.
“He has no ego and he says this has been one of the most rewarding seasons of his career,” Yurkiw said.
To have a chance at being the best, world-class athletes have to be selfish. They also have to hope the people around them will be otherwise.
“I’ve found a few people who are totally on board with my passion,” Yurkiw said, “and that’s one of the big reasons why this is my best season yet.”
Canada's Larisa Yurkiw starts Friday's Olympic downhill training run. Yurkiw fell on the course, tumbling into the safety netting, but will continue to compete in Sochi.
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