ALBERTA

Yurkiw runs her own show as lone downhiller on Canadian women's ski team

12/03/2014 03:33 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST
LAKE LOUISE, Alta. - Larisa Yurkiw achieved her Olympic dream on her own.

The Owen Sound, Ont., skier continues to manage her own ski career back under the umbrella of the Canadian team. Dropped from the national team for 2013-14, Yurkiw raised about $150,000 via sponsorships, juggled the logistics of training and racing and ultimately qualified for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The podium is the quest of every athlete at a Winter Games, but just getting into the start hut wearing the Maple Leaf required an Olympian effort from Yurkiw.

The sleepless nights, the pounding the pavement for sponsorships and the workload of managing herself and a support team while trying to achieve a pair of top-12 World Cup results "was probably more pressure than I've ever had," Yurkiw said Wednesday in Lake Louise, Alta.

She finished in the top-10 in two World Cup downhills to qualify for Sochi. Racing on a sub-par knee, Yurkiw was 20th in Olympic women's downhill. She was one of many women in the tricky super-G who missed a gate and were disqualified

"In the end, I was really happy to represent Canada, a very patriotic thing to do," Yurkiw said. "It was epic."

A catastrophic knee injury in 2009 kept Yurkiw from racing at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., and for almost two years after that.

She felt the impact of finally becoming an Olympian when she returned to Canada from Russia last spring.

"When it really hit me was when I came back to Owen Sound my hometown and did a puck drop and a meet-and-greet with the local OHL team," she said. "It was that feeling of community that made me realize what I was doing was an example for people to be braver in their day."

The 26-year-old was reinstated to the Canadian ski team this winter. Yurkiw is the lone women's downhill specialist on the team.

As the host country, Canada could have as many as six women racing the season-opening World Cup downhills Friday and Saturday in Lake Louise. Yurkiw will be the only one.

Olympic double gold medallist Tina Maze of Slovenia was fastest in Wednesday's training run. Norway's Lotte Smiseth Sejersted was second and Austria's Ramona Siebenhofer third. Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. finished eighth and Yurkiw was 46th.

Alpine Canada funds a single women's ski team combining both technical — slalom and giant slalom — and speed racers.

The squad includes Marie-Michele Gagnon of Lac-Etchemin, Que., and Erin Mielzynski of Brampton, Ont., who have won World Cup medals in slalom and GS. Gagnon is expected to race Sunday's super-G at Lake Louise.

Yurkiw was offered financial support to be part of the combined program and turned it down, Alpine Canada vice-president Paul Kristofic said.

"She decided pursuing it on her own was better," Kristofic said. "It was her decision to go completely on her own. I would like to have a robust women's speed program. We don't have the athletes there."

Tailoring a program to her needs and achieving results she wanted as "Team Larisa" last winter made Yurkiw reluctant to re-enter a program where downhill would not be a priority.

She was the only downhiller on a combined team in 2012-13 when she had a single top-30 result in a World Cup.

"That was what put me off the team in the first place," Yurkiw said. "I didn't want to take a step back. The conditions didn't make sense to me."

So Yurkiw opted to remain president and chief operating officer of her own operation. The budget for her coach, ski tech, medical support services, travel, accommodation, summer snow camps in Europe and living expenses is about $200,000.

Yurkiw was fundraising while she recovered from knee surgeries in both March and June. She entered into a financial agreement to train and share team services with Sweden. Yurkiw's roommate is Swedish racer Kajsa Kling.

As daunting as it was to go it alone in pursuing an Olympic berth, the experience empowered Yurkiw to turn down the security of the national team and continue self-directing her ski career.

"It's still a giant budget to raise and a big effort, but there's a ton of freedom that comes with being independent and opportunities being a one-person team," she explained. "I like being my own boss."

Yurkiw posted one of the best World Cup result of her career at Lake Louise in 2013 when she finished seventh in a downhill. She's trying to re-gain her pace in training this week.

"This is my return after a couple of knee surgeries this summer," she said. "I think if I come away with a bunch of top 20s, it's a successful weekend.

"It'll be tough for me to go to bed at night with a top-20 in my head. It's not my life dream, but it's part of the process."

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