National Post: Larisa Does it Her Way
Deep down, Larisa Yurkiw always believed that she could rip down a rugged mountainside as fast as any other woman in the world on skis — even when it seemed no one else did.
But the 27-year-old skier admits to feeling a tad numb in recent weeks after winning back-to-back World Cup downhill medals.
An overnight success story, she is not.
“I’ve been working this hard for 10 years,” the pride of Owen Sound, Ont., says over the phone before a much-needed physio appointment in Bludenz, Austria. “To be rewarded with a podium is the only part that’s really new.”
First, she conquered a personal demon in December by claiming bronze in Val d’Isere, France, on the very same mountain where she suffered a catastrophic knee injury in 2009. Then, in the first race of the New Year, she seized silver and shared the podium with American superstar Lindsey Vonn and Austrian Cornelia Huetter, who is ranked second in the World Cup downhill standings.
If any doubts remained, Yurkiw proved at the finish line in Altenmarkt, Austria, that she belongs in the conversation of the best female ski racers on the planet.
“I know so many of the girls so well now after being on the circuit for so long, and I know everyone is passionate and driven and working hard,” says Yurkiw, clearly uncomfortable with all the fuss. “There’s so many of us, and I feel grateful to have a huge celebration, a huge vase for an amazing set of flowers. All of this cool stuff that comes along with a podium.
“I guess now I’m in place where I can make a few mistakes, and I’m still in there, which is a really nice feeling to have. Because to have a perfect run with so many variables is close to impossible. I don’t really shoot for that anymore.”
Even without perfection, Yurkiw is the Canadian story of the 2015-16 season thus far in winter sport. She’s the only Canadian to have graced the alpine World Cup podium — man or woman — yet she’s an independent athlete competing on behalf of the aptly named Team Larisa.
Staring down retirement back in 2013, Yurkiw was cut from the Canadian team. Refusing to give up, she devised a game plan — one many thought was incredibly naive — to fund and manage her own career with help from sponsors — big and small.
She received an offer to rejoin the national team last spring but turned it down, in part, because she had no guarantee of racing in every World Cup race.
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Due in part to the retirements of Emily Brydon and Kelly Vanderbeek, the national women’s team is stronger these days on the technical side of the sport.
“At the end of the day, we want all Canadian athletes to succeed, and that happens in different ways,” says Alpine Canada president Mark Rubinstein. “Ideally, it would be great to have Larisa rejoin the team and there’s benefits to that both ways.”
As difficult as it is to come up with $24,000 a year to fund a dream, Yurkiw is not about to casually walk away from a situation that is clearly working for her. She won roughly $40,000 in prize earnings at the last two World Cup stops, which definitely takes the edge off.
The two sides will likely revisit the matter this spring, and Yurkiw has no idea what to expect — if anything — from those discussions.
“I need some direct conversation on whether we benefit from each other’s situation or not,” she says. “And if it is or not, then I’m fine with it. But that’s not to say I couldn’t use the help.”
For the time being, Yurkiw just wants to soak up every minute of life as the fourth-ranked female downhill ski racer in the world.
“At the end of the day, I spend close to zero per cent of my time thinking about how to get back with Alpine Canada — and not in a disrespectful way,” she says. “I just don’t have the time. This is going forward in such a big way, that I can barely keep up.
“It’s highly intense and stressful, but it’s awesome and exciting and busy — all those good things.”
The next good thing, she hopes, will come this weekend at a World Cup stop in Cortina, Italy.
Recent history suggests it would be foolhardy to bet against her.