By Dave Feschuk
Mon., Nov. 16, 2015
Larisa Yurkiw, the 27-year-old veteran of the World Cup downhill, was talking about what it is that keeps her doing what she does.
Since she was a teenager she’s been travelling the world tossing her body off ice-encrusted rock faces in the name of a sport that, history suggests, will lead to another operating table. But the stuff that feeds the urge, she said, has changed. Once, as a younger athlete, she was driven solely from within — by the rush of adrenaline and the idea of personal greatness, by the dream of setting her boots on a podium and the love of the work along the way. Period. Full stop.
But the source of her motivation has morphed with the years and the achievements, with a trip to the 2014 Olympics and a silver-medal World Cup finish in Italy in January. The goal remains the same — she still wants to be the best in the world when the curtain is raised on the ski season in Lake Louise next month. Lately, though, she has been finding the seeds of motivation reside outside herself, and in unlikely places. She’s become inspired, specifically, by a group of people she has inspired. She has become a fan of her fans.
“That’s a big part of what fuels me now,” she said.
Yurkiw explained. She has, she said, been partaking in a social-media campaign for a little more than a year. She calls it the Brave Badge campaign. At first she aimed it at aspiring skiers, asking their coaches to submit the stories of the ones who’d shown particular courage on the slopes. Yurkiw, who’s rehabbed from too many surgeries on knees and shoulders to count, would read the emails of youthful perseverance and send out the Brave Badges, stickers embossed with the image of a lion. The kids would proudly attach the badges to their helmets. As outreaches by world-class athletes go, it was a success.
But more recently, the connections have expanded. Ski racers still abound. Yurkiw spoke of being touched by the story of Iain Quayle, a 16-year-old from Collingwood who overcame spinal fractures suffered in a December training session to return to the slopes a few months later. But she also spoke of Dr. Michael Clarfield, the 60-year-old former team physician of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who has helped Yurkiw back to health from more than one medical setback. About seven years ago, Clarfield was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a particularly heinous form of the disease that, at the time, presented a six per cent two-year survival rate. Some seven years after receiving that apparent death sentence, Clarfield was celebrating another birthday and beating the odds.
“A miracle man,” is what Yurkiw calls him. “He’s a very proud winner of the Brave Badge campaign. It just changes the way you see everything.”
As a self-professed “fan of human connection,” Yurkiw said stories like these have helped her discover both perspective and competitive impetus as she continues to navigate the self-absorbed world of elite sport.
“It’s this big cycle of inspiration. It’s a powerful thing to be a part of,” Yurkiw said. “I personally don’t draw so much inspiration from someone who won something. I draw more from people who called on a corner of themselves that they didn’t know they had. So it’s been a whole spectrum of people telling me about the types of things they’ve overcome in their own lives. It’s about being brave — not just skiing 130 km/h down a mountain, but maybe trying something that you wouldn’t necessarily see happening for yourself.
“To me, that’s powerful stuff.”
That would fit the description of Kate Walsh, a 45-year-old teacher from Yurkiw’s hometown of Owen Sound who reached out to Yurkiw to tell the story of a different kind of courage. Walsh has long been involved in the performing arts, but always behind the scenes.
“I was always the organizer of things,” Walsh was saying in a recent interview. “But I never had the confidence to put myself out in front of an audience. I never felt good enough or skinny enough or beautiful enough or confident enough or talented enough. Long story short, basically, in the last year and a half, I felt that I’d had enough with being not enough.”
After committing to vocal lessons and joining The Choir That Rocks, an adult troupe that harmonizes popular songs, she found the confidence to stand on a stage in front of a few hundred people and sing a solo, the song “Least Complicated” by Indigo Girls.
“I worked my butt off, and I did it,” Walsh said. “And it felt great.”
Also great, Walsh said, is the idea that a top athlete would be interested enough in her journey to marvel, as Yurkiw has, at its profundity.
“It’s kind of neat to be an inspiration to an inspiration,” Walsh said.
Yurkiw said that as the Brave Badge campaign has taken off, she’s been reminded of a conversation she had years ago with former national team skier Emily Brydon.
Brydon told her about a time she was losing some steam in her career and about how a trip she took to Africa with the organization Right To Play rejuvenated it. Right To Play goes to some of the bleakest places on the planet and aims at empowering children through sport.
“Emily said that the bigger-than-her experience changed everything for her,” Yurkiw said. “And now I know exactly what she’s talking about. The connections I’ve made doing this have really made a world of difference. It’s a very intimate thing. And it’s bigger than me.”
World Cup ski racing is bigger across the pond than it is in Canada. Millions watch race weekends worldwide, and Yurkiw is a beloved star in Europe. She’s admired for reasons that have been well documented in these pages. Since Canada shuttered its women’s speed-skiing program in 2013, Yurkiw has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship to fund her pursuit. This year, while the national governing body has resurrected the program and offered her a spot, she has chosen to remain an independent, reasoning that the Canadian team is designed as a developmental vehicle for a new crop of younger skiers and thus not an optimal home for a podium contender in her prime.
The idea that she has taken the spotlight under which she resides and shone it back on the people in her corner has touched those who’ve been singled out.
Quayle said he considers Yurkiw an “icon” who has overcome more than her share of adversity, including the catastrophic knee injury that kept her out of the 2010 Olympics.
“It was pretty cool for her to recognize me, I wasn’t expecting that,” said Quayle.
Clarfield, meanwhile, has spent much of his adult life nursing athletes back to health. To illustrate how long he’s been in the business he points out that when he began as the Maple Leafs’ doctor in 1989, his salary was on par with that of the team’s best players, a ratio that’s since swung exponentially in the players’ favour. But keeping in mind all the competitors with whom he’s crossed paths, he said he’s known very few of Yurkiw’s kind.
“A lot of athletes have that tunnel vision and only see where they’re going,” said Clarfield. “But to have someone like Larisa, who can see the world beyond herself — like Clara Hughes and Marnie McBean — we’ve only had a few athletes who transcend sports in that way.”
After an off-season spent restocking her stores of strength, along with time spent recovering from shoulder surgery, these days Yurkiw is readying for what she calls “hunting season” — as in, she’ll begin hunting podiums soon enough. Hurtling off those ice-encrusted rock faces, she’ll yet again be a lone wolf. But she’ll carry with her the strength of a pack.
“These connections have really made a world of difference,” Yurkiw said. “It’s a very intimate thing. I probably missed that sense of camaraderie in a team. And I found it online, in people I never thought I’d ever be connected to.
“There’s nothing about the road that feels alone anymore.”