Saskatchewan

Canadian Para skier to miss Winter Games after accident in Norway

When Kurt Oatway was getting ready for his second downhill training run in Lillehammer, Norway, the Para alpine skier didn't quite feel right in his seat.  

'I knew kind of within that moment that my season was over,' says former U of Sask student Kurt Oatway

Para alpine skier Kurt Oatway recovering in hospital after an accident during preparation for the 2022 WPAS World Championships in Norway. Due to the crash, he won't be able to attend the Paralympic Games in March. (Provided by Kurt Oatway)

When Kurt Oatway was getting ready for his second downhill training run in Lillehammer, Norway, the Para alpine skier didn't quite feel right in his seat. 

At that point he didn't know that he was about to head into "the most serious crash" of his sporting career, as he would later describe the accident on social media.

The whole trip to Norway seemed to be ill-fated from the start for the 2018 super-G Paralympic gold medallist. Oatway, a former University of Saskatchewan student, went to Europe for the 2022 World Championships in January.

His personal expectations were high for this event, given it was so close before the Paralympic Games in March 2022.

However, the trip turned out much differently. The problems started when Oatway landed in Norway.

'Less than ideal' circumstances

"There was red flag after red flag of just everything going wrong," said the Para skier from Alberta.

There were complications entering Norway, his ski bags didn't show up and he had to borrow skis from the Australian team, he said.

It was "less than ideal of a circumstance," said 37-year-old Oatway.

"It is somebody else's stuff, it's set up a little bit differently. The flex is not quite what you're used to."

Para alpine skier Kurt Oatway won the gold medal in the sitting super-G at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. (Provided by Gord Poulton)

In the first training run of the downhill, Oatway crashed and shattered the seat of the sit ski, he said. While he remained unharmed then, he had to get a new seat.

"It's like ski racing in a pair of rental boots," he said.

"The seat just didn't fit right. It felt loose. I didn't feel connected or secure to my rig."

Despite the less-than-ideal situation, Oatway started his second downhill training run in Lillehammer on Jan. 12.

The devastating crash happened at the end of the course, when he was going about 80 to 90 km/h, with just about three or four gates to go, according to Oatway.

He suffered injuries to his left side including a broken collarbone, fractures of varying degrees in three ribs and contusions to his left lung, Oatway wrote on Instagram after the accident.

"I didn't need a doctor to tell me that I had broken bones," he told CBC on Tuesday.

"Trying to reinflate my lungs with three broken ribs was not the most enjoyable experience."

Focus on road of recovery

Oatway said he knew at this moment that his season was over, but the physical pain was overwhelming the emotional and psychological one.

Last Friday, the Para skier flew home to Calgary and is now glad to be back in Canada, he said.

Despite the disappointment of missing this year's Paralympic Games, Oatway wants to focus on his rehabilitation program.

"You can't change the past," he said.

"To be angry because of something you can't change is kind of a wasted energy…. All I can really do is start the road of recovery and push hard and in four years do what I was planning to accomplish this year."

Kurt Oatway had to spend time in hospitals both in Norway and Calgary after his accident on Jan. 12, 2022, in Lillehammer. The athlete first started his Para skiing career with the Regina Alpine Race Team. (Provided by Kurt Oatway)

Gord Poulton, a coach with the Regina Alpine Race Team, says Oatway has a good chance of a comeback.

"I am very optimistic that he has got the internal drive," said the director of the Regina Ski Club Alpine Adaptive Ski Program, who was Oatway's first Para skiing coach.

While the athlete learned how to ski at the age of five, he started the sport of sit-skiing in 2010 after breaking his back in 2007, according to Oatway.

Today Oatway works mostly with the national team, but the relationship between the Saskatchewan coach and the athlete from Alberta is still close, said Poulton.

"He has been a very focused athlete ever since I met him," said Poulton. "If he wants to do it, he can do it."

Other top athletes who experienced similar devastating accidents in their careers and managed to come back successfully — such as Saskatchewan's snowboarder Mark McMorris — are now inspirations for Oatway on his recovery journey, he said.

"It's not an impossible task," he said. "There is definitely guys to look at and to see what's able to be done."

In the meantime, Oatway's Para alpine teammates will keep him in their minds when they head to the Paralympics without him.

"For Kurt and the team, the timing of his injury is obviously disappointing," said Matt Hallat, Para-alpine high performance director with Alpine Canada, in an email to CBC.

"Kurt always brought his best, and always is trying to be the fastest he can be. His teammates know this about him more than anyone on the team, and they know they can take that piece of him to Beijing in order to help achieve their results."

With his competitive season over, Oatway said he is looking forward to events in 2023, including in Norway.

"I hope to go back to there and crush that hill and show it who's boss."

With files from Janani Whitfield

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