Canada's Larisa Yurkiw qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics after a career-best sixth place finish in the World Cup women's downhill in Altenmarkt Zauchensee, Austria., on Saturday. (Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images)
Every once in a while sport allows for something crazy and the truly unexpected happens.
A case in point is the evolving and alluring story of Canadian alpine skier Larisa Yurkiw. She's 25 years old from the Georgian Bay community of Owen Sound, Ont., and at the season's outset few gave her a hope in hell of making it to the Sochi Olympics.
In fact, she was dropped by the Canadian Alpine Ski Team because it had no money to operate the extremely costly women's speed program (the downhill and super-G events). She suddenly found herself no longer a member of the national squad and thus not able to access the resources, both financial and technical, that would dramatically aid her in taking a run at the Olympic Games in Russia.
Although Yurkiw is the reigning Canadian champion in women's downhill it was deemed that her recent international statistics weren't good enough to guarantee her a spot on the national team. So the powers that be understandably focused on other skiers where they saw more potential to produce a podium result in Sochi. And they were under the gun because no Canadian alpine skier has won an Olympic medal since Edi Podivinsky's downhill bronze in 1994, a drought which has spanned a generation of racing.
"It's definitely joy first but it's a lot of validation for me," Yurkiw said from Austria. She's fresh off a sixth-place result in a downhill at Altenmarkt, her second Top 12 placing of the season, which means she's met the standard for inclusion on the Canadian Olympic team.
"I put myself out there and lots of people put themselves out there believing in me in what was a bit of a risk in the beginning but I'm so happy it's paying off."
Yurkiw's referring to the fact that she's had to take control of her own destiny in more ways than one. In order to fund her Olympic aspirations she's personally raised more than $150,000 and essentially gone knocking on doors to find private individuals and businesses to back her. She calls it a risk because just prior to the Vancouver Olympics she tore up her left knee in as massive crash at Val d'Isere, France and took nearly four years to overcome her lingering fears and get back to racing form.
"The highs are so high and the lows are heartbreaking," she told me after finding out she would have to go it alone this season. "But I've never quit anything before I felt I was truly finished. It's in me to see this thing through and to stay true to skiing in the same way it's been true to me."
The first company to accept Yurkiw's pitch was Buduchnist Credit Union in Toronto, the largest of its kind for Ukrainian Canadians. It has a sponsorship fund for Canadian athletes of Ukrainian heritage and in Yurkiw they saw a worthy recipient of their support.
"Her injury struck a chord with me," said Max Trojan, an investment advisor with BCU wealth management, of Yurkiw's story. "Being a skier myself who had a big injury I know the amount of suffering she endured. I always root for the underdog who has been truly excluded. We need to shoot for the stars."
There were others including the five Nella brothers who operate Nella Cutlery and Food Equipment, a Toronto based family business which has been around since 1955. When they got wind of her plight they put up about $15,000 to help Yurkiw get where she was going.
"It's not about the money. It's about someone making good," said Anthony Nella, one of the company's managers. "She had to go out and get support and to do a budget. It's a great little story. She's had a crash course in money you might say. And now she's kicking ass. She's got confidence, she's happy and she's in a good place. It shows in her skiing."
For her part, Yurkiw has steadfastly refused to be intimidated by the challenge of being a long shot. That said, every step of the way has been an eye opener.
"I arrived at my first training camp this year and for the first time in my career I knew the price of my ski pass," she reflected. "Ski racing has given back to me in the most loyal way possible. It's stung me at times but it's given me a huge education into myself, into people and into potential."
In her hometown of Owen Sound the folk are already celebrating.
"People are thrilled with her story," said Manny Paiva, the news manager of CFOS radio and the Bayshore Broadcasting Network. "She was knocked down and didn't give up. She showed a tenacity to succeed. Those traits naturally invite people to follow her and to cheer for her."
And so it is that there's a community flag at City Hall in Owen Sound which residents are flocking to sign in order to wish Yurkiw well. Her parents will take the flag to Sochi and present it to her in advance of the three races she's qualified to compete in, the combined, the downhill and the super G. In addition a Facebook page touting her as a potential Canadian flag bearer already has two thousand likes.
All of this must be extremely satisfying to Yurkiw but she's not ready to rest on her laurels. Just getting to the Olympic field of play has been a mighty struggle but her greatest challenge is yet to come.
"Sport is like an exaggerated way to live your day," she chuckled. "I've definitely learned more about myself than from any other experience in my life. I've developed into a powerful version of myself."
It's been an uphill climb for Larisa Yurkiw and you might say there's nowhere to go but downhill from here.
But when you're talking about a ski racer who's just made the Olympic grade on her own merit, you couldn't ask for anything better.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.
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