Paralympic ski racer Andrew Kurka is about to get the resources and support to feel even more like a world-class ski racer.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard (USSS) will add the Paralympic Alpine ski and snowboard teams back under its umbrella effective immediately, the organization announced Tuesday. It’s a move that allows athletes such as Kurka — a two-time Paralympic medalist — to receive access to the same sort of integrated services as, say, two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin, instead of a one-size-fits-all kind of program.
The U.S. Paralympic Alpine and snowboard teams have been under the management of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee since 2010. There are now six Paralympic national governing bodies overseen by the USPOC — athletics, cycling, powerlifting, swimming, biathlon and cross-country skiing.
The switch allows USSS to provide more comprehensive support and resources to its Paralympians, including coaching along with access to sports science, medicine and psychology. It also allows Paralympians to interact even more with some of the best in the business like Shiffrin — the all-time winningest World Cup racer — or perhaps even two-time reigning Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion Chloe Kim just to share tips and advice.
“It’s going to make a world of difference,” said Kurka, who earned downhill gold and silver in the super-G at the 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea.
The move has been in the works for a while. The current level of support from the USOPC for athletes, including two current coaches, will transfer over in an effort to maintain the continuity of support. That will eventually draw to a close when USSS fully picks up the program.
Among other resources, Paralympians such as seven-time Paralympic Alpine skiing medalist Laurie Stephens and three-time Paralympic snowboard champion Brenna Huckaby have heightened access to high-performance amenities at the USANA Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.
“When you look at the breadth of what we’re trying to do or what we want to stand for, diversity and inclusion, really holistically embracing all aspects of our sports, Para is a very important pillar within that,” Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, said in a phone interview. “The athletes are doing amazing things and we felt that we have the capability and infrastructure now to do this the right way. That was important given our overall mission and vision and the direction that we’re heading.”
The teams will be guided by Para sports director Erik Leirfallom, who was a coach for the U.S. Para Alpine team from 2007-10. He worked with a squad that captured 11 medals at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.
For Kurka, this is a chance to watch and learn — and even offer his own advice — from someone like Ryan Cochran-Siegle. The 2022 Beijing Games super-G silver medalist, who runs a bed and breakfast in Alaska, finished fourth in the downhill at the Paralympics a year ago despite breaking his right arm just before the race when he was swept into a fence by a wind gust on a training run.
Kurka’s looking forward to the marketing aspects as well, where USSS can assist in providing another level of exposure.
“Being on equal terms and joining (USSS) and everything, that alone helps put us in that light where people can see us and know, `Hey, we’re athletes as well,’” explained the 31-year-old Kurka, who damaged three vertebrae in his spinal cord in an ATV accident as a teenager. “The USOPC has amazing facilities, but we’re kind of lost in the mix. We’re using sports trainers that don’t just work with skiers. They work with a lot of other people and so we’re just getting the trickle-down effect. We’re getting what we need, but we’re not getting it with the quality at which we need it to excel.
“I’ve committed a lot to be a world-class athlete. I’ve broken a lot of bones. What we do is inspirational, yes. But we’re here to do the best that we can do and we’re here to be athletes as well.”