In an Olympic year, a few stories always emerge that people can truly connect with. This year, as Sochi approaches, the local alpine community has been glued to the results of Owen Sound’s 25 year old Larisa Yurkiw. Cut from the Canadian National Ski team last spring, Yurkiw needed one more season to chase her Olympic dreams. So, she pounded the pavement, raising the required $150,000 in sponsorhip money while continuing to train at an elite level. After posting career-best results at this year’s opening World Cup races, Yurkiw has positioned herself as a legitimate contender for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team. We caught up with Larisa to hear more about this incredible journey so far.
Thanks for taking the time to talk and congratulations on your season so far. Can you bring people up to speed on how you became a ‘privateer’ on the World Cup circuit this season?
I was cut in April from the National team. I didn’t have a great season last year coming back from the knee injury I had in 2009. There was no funding for my program. My program was basically me and staff. The business decision was basically to save some money by cutting the whole program. Alpine Canada gave me a lot of good years in this sport but I needed one more … so I went to work.
In April, when you got that news, did you decide right away I am going to make this happen?
I got the news on April 4th and it probably took two or three weeks that were fairly chaotic, full of phone calls and researching what this might be like. I was well aware in the first two or three months of this journey that I might reach a point where I’d have to close up shop. I was doing my absolute best to raise enough money to make this happen but, just like any other startup business, nobody wants to be the first investor. In this sport, there are no guarantees so my Olympic venture was something that was hard to sell in the beginning. I got to my first ski camp in July and once people saw me on snow and saw pictures and heard that I was really serious about creating this opportunity for myself, then the sponsors kind of trickled in and a few really helped me grow my network. I moved to Toronto for the summer to be in a more corporate environment and the ball just kept rolling. I was aware that I might get to a point where I couldn’t sustain the expense of a preparation period but I just kept going and seeing how far I could take it. We had a working relationship with the National team. I couldn’t have done all that work without knowing that I had some real chances to qualify for the games. Now, here we are at Christmas and I’ve had my best season yet and we are not even half way through. It’s been a ton of fun, an incredible experience and it’s hard to put in a nutshell everything I’ve learned in the last six months.
I bet. You’ve learned everything from continuing with your training to running your own business. It must be intense.
Yes, I thought there would be a certain intensity or level of pressure added, since that I was so invested personally. But in the end, it’s been almost the opposite. Because I have the ownership of this environment, I think it’s created a relaxed mentality. Like I am only racing for myself and the obstacle that – in the end – has become an opportunity. It’s been really liberating, for a personality like mine, I know that I am pretty driven and also very analytical. Having control of every facet of this journey has actually been exciting for me. I am more involved than I was ever able to be in the past.
Obviously you have a ton of fans and people supporting you from this area. When you are on the road, are you aware of that support?
I’ve been very well supported since the beginning – whether it’s financially or just morally. Being part of a small town in Owen Sound, and the ski clubs in Collingwood and then my area of Toronto this summer—all of these communities are very powerful. I do feel it and hear about it, but at the same time, the thing that’s working for me when I push out of the start is that I have a very clear mind this year. I am not sure that was the case in other years, post injury. Lots of things became very complicated. This year, some things have become a bit more complicated, but some things –like skiing—have become a lot simpler. My coach, Kurt Mayr, and I are a two-person team: One athlete and one coach. We run a tight ship and we really enjoy ourselves. It’s pretty neat.
Going it alone must have sounded like a gamble to some but you must have known you were ready to compete at that level?
When I think back to how much pressure was on those first few races its nuts. The team offered me Beaver Creek, Colorado and Lake Louise, Alberta for my chances to perform in the top 20 and show that I could continue racing on the World Cup Circuit this season. That’s the platform to qualify for the Olympics. I thought about it a few times and it was overwhelming to weigh the worst-case scenario but we had to be realistic. In the end, I had my best career result at home in Lake Louise, with a 7th, and in Beaver Creek, I started the season with quite a bang. I was really proud of the composure I had in those first two weekends—because there was a time in the summer that I thought it might just be too much. Coming off a season like last year, when I had very little confidence, it was great to put in an awesome preparation period, but, ultimately, the races are in a league of their own. Something changed for sure from last season and it was an intense start to the year but it’s been so much fun. It is so cool to know that people at home are enjoying it too – to know that people are watching and following and feeling good about what I’m doing too. That’s the best part about success, is to share it with people.
So explain to me what happens now in terms of officially qualifying for the Canadian Olympic team?
Okay, the third week of January they will decide the team. That means I have three or four more weekends of racing World Cups to post some results. I am currently 50% qualified; I need one more top 12 result to solidify my spot. That is definitely doable. This past weekend I was 14th, and I was definitely thinking about the top 12 that I needed, but at the same time my coach is very diligent about reminding me why this was such a successful weekend. He is always reminding me that the way this season is going is something to celebrate. I am definitely going to keep on this path. My biggest goal is to go to the Olympic games but if they choose someone more worthy, then that’s out of my control.
Val D’Isere was where you were injured in 2009. How did it feel to return this year?
Yes, I blogged about it on the plane home. Last year when I went there and returned there for the first time, I really felt like I had to beat it into the ground, but this year it felt like just another track that I wanted to have a good time at. I am in such a different place mentally and physically that I wasn’t thinking so much about all the pivotal things that happened three years ago. It was interesting, I was visiting my sponsor and knocked on his hotel room and realized it was the room I stayed in when I was hurt. I sat on his bed and thought about everything that had happened in that room, and all of the phone calls I made and all the hugs I got. But then I thought, well, I better get to the gym. I had things to do and my life has completely moved on. I did take a second to reflect on the situation but at the same time, this season has been a feel-good, productive season. I still had big goals of performing well in Val D’Isere even if it was this place that had really hurt me before.
It’s amazing how far you’ve come. Now you’re home in Owen Sound for a few days?
Yes, I’m home for about 10 days and it’s really nice. I haven’t missed a Christmas at home in a long time so I am very lucky that way. I am planning to do a bunch of sleeping and eating and a bit of training and just feel hungry to go back to Europe in January.
When is your next race back?
We are in Austria this first week of January.
I think part of why everyone has been so excited to stand behind you, is that people can totally relate. We always tell my daughter that if you fall, you have to get back up and try again. You are a great example. Are you surprised how enthusiastic everyone has been?
I don’t hear as much because I’m not in the grocery store or at the gas station like my parents. But social media does help me stay connected. It’s very special to be supported like that. People’s words have a big effect on me—and the way this journey makes people feel is important to me. I try to be as open and honest as I can, because I wasn’t always 100% sure it would work out. I think people can relate to that. There are always those athletes that just seem to succeed their entire career, and that sounds really nice, but I definitely haven’t been one of those people. I think that’s what a lot of people are relating to: The curveballs and the obstacles and not always getting exactly what you want but ultimately finding a different path to feeling happy. This season has been really special. The people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned have been really rewarding and I wouldn’t change it. I realize now why certain things went the way they did. I don’t regret any part of it and I am not bitter in any place in my heart. The politics becomes insignificant when you feel as focused as I am on the goals I’m trying to accomplish. Everything is about looking forward. I don’t allow myself a lot of time or energy to look back.
You said that Alpine Canada had given you a lot of great years but you needed one more. How would you sum up the motivation behind this season?
It came down to what I felt in my heart. It wasn’t so much the numbers that I didn’t reach or the games that I didn’t go to in Vancouver. It was that I hadn’t pushed out of the start and crossed the finish line skiing just the way I can. Not in a more magical way, or something extra special, but just skiing the way I am capable of. For whatever reason, I just didn’t feel like I had done that often enough in my career. I didn’t say it very often but I told people close to me that the only thing that would break my heart would be to leave this sport never having skied and raced the way that I am capable of. That had nothing to do with results, I’ve never been a numbers girl, but it was just a feeling. I wanted to show myself that I was as strong as I could be when it counted. I am really happy at this point in the year that I have already done that. I have not reached my full potential even yet, but to be skiing the way I have it feels completely relieving. I do have what it takes I just needed a little bit more maturity and development. That’s not something you can rush, but I think there are a lot of athletic and sport organizations that don’t have the money or support to wait. That is not anyone’s fault; it’s just the way sport is sometimes. I think that’s what motivated me in the beginning to try. Even if I had to walk away before the races started, because I couldn’t afford the journey, at least I would have done everything I could. Then I could move on and to the next chapter without any regrets. I knew I hadn’t done that yet. I hadn’t exhausted myself yet.
Well, congrats on Team Larisa and your results so far this year. We are all pulling for you.
Thanks so much. I have a great family and a great support team. I have people that I talk to every day. It looks like I am alone out there, but I am so not. I even get National team coaches from other countries find me in the parking lot to shake my hand. I’ve been around for a while and people know my story. I think people can relate to my journey. It’s been an incredible experience and I want to thank everyone for their support.