Kaya Turski turns the page on a stellar career

Kaya Turski turns the page on a stellar career

'When I reminisce about this life of experiences and connections my heart swells,' says 8-time X Games champion

By Kaya Turski for CBC Sports
January 3, 2018

Athletics was always “it.” When my peers were busy socializing or sneaking notes around class about their current crush, my crush was the rail setup I wanted to slide on my rollerblades later that week.

Kaya Turski dared to be different at an early age. (Photo courtesy Kaya Turski) Kaya Turski dared to be different at an early age. (Photo courtesy Kaya Turski)

Early in my life I knew I was different. At the playground, I only wanted to jump off the top of the slide instead of sliding down it like everyone else, or attempt twirling jumps off the porch stairs while mom and dad held their breaths. I would walk down the block with friends in my knee-socks-and-mini-skirt high school uniform and invite challenges: “hey girls, check this out, think I can jump over that bench?!” I don’t know where it came from, but I clearly had some thrill-seeking bug.

As I officially announce my retirement today, I think back to my last year of high school, at a local rail jam, I clicked into the first pair of skis in more than a decade and fell in love instantly. I experienced an inexplicable sense of belonging, as if the calling had been there all along. Everything was suddenly urging me to step off the beaten path, move to the west of Canada and pursue a sport I’d tried only… twice?


With an insatiable thirst for challenge, growing up in sport allowed me to push myself to places I’d once only dreamed of. Nature, the mountains, and the mental challenges involved in thriving in such a high-intensity sport were my teachers, and I was a motivated student plowing from one rich textbook of experience to another. Sport surrounded me with extremely talented individuals who had a strong sense of purpose - a profound desire to be the best they could be — which only pushed me to dive deeper into mine.


Breaking and mending

Over time, sport exposed me to countless different cultures and corners of the globe. Breaking and mending myself — both physically and mentally — it strengthened my notion of resilience… my steel will was a strong match for my physical ailments and fears. Standing atop and overlooking some of the highest peaks in the world, I breathed in perspective: both how significant I sought to be, and how miniscule I really was — ahead lay an entire universe worth of exploration.

Turski was encouraged
 to try the 1080-degree rotation by Canadian icon Sarah Burke. (Christian Pondella) Turski was encouraged to try the 1080-degree rotation by Canadian icon Sarah Burke. (Christian Pondella)

I’ll never forget my first months of training,  when I didn’t know a single soul in the ski world. Endless hours, plowing awkwardly through the trails. And then learning my first rotation off a tiny trail-side jump, one of my most vivid personal victories that sparked me more than I can explain.

I have great memories of hitchhiking every day with my friends Denise and Kim (admittedly, sometimes with some sketchy characters), eager to do whatever it took to ski as often as possible. I’ll never forget the immense thrills of capturing some of my hardest-earned victories, and the heartbreak I felt after crushing losses.


I’ll never forget meeting, for the first time, my heroes in the freeski world, Sarah Burke and Kristi Leskinen. Pure awe! And then, years later, when Sarah pulled me aside, gave me a little kick in the butt, and pushed me to try and land my first switch (backwards) 1080-degree rotation.

I’ll never forget the day we lost her, lying on the bathroom floor, sobbing, in shock. Not even a month later, trying my best to carry Sarah’s legacy, I landed the switch 1080 for my sixth consecutive X Games gold, a first in women’s slopestyle history. And that victory was just as much hers as it was mine.

I’ll miss the freedom the sport offered me, I’ll miss soaring in the air. I’ll miss my ski family; with whom I built special bonds in the outpouring of our souls into common goals. And thriving under extreme pressure, putting my entire being on the line of performance. It was in those moments that nothing else mattered — pure existence, pure presence.


So many people have asked me, “How can you let this go, right before the Olympics? You still have so much in you! How can you just walk away?” Well the simple (but not so simple) answer is: I'm not just walking away. It has taken a great deal of time to confront and embrace both what my soul and physical body has been asking for.


The insane part

Looking back, and writing out the list of injuries I’ve experienced, I have to smile at the slight insanity of it all: a severed pancreas, lacerated kidneys, bruised lungs, four knee reconstructions (three ACL), a torn and reconstructed shoulder, a shattered and plated arm and finger, different dislocations in my wrist, shoulder and sterno-clavicular joints, and countless other hard impacts to my body…and here I am to tell the story! Perhaps the more insane part is, I would never take any of it back. How could I? Giving it everything I had in my chosen pursuit was the only way I knew. As the saying goes, “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

I remember very clearly, a couple of years ago, sitting with a friend over dinner. She lowered her voice and leaned in, as if the topic was almost too dangerous to explore. What would you do, she whispered, if you could do anything in the world? I paused for a moment, but then smiled at the simplicity of the answer: This. I would have been right there, living and pursuing that very life. And that’s when it hit me: no matter the results, the fame, the money I had made it, I was living my dream. And that is the gift.

The world is now open to Turski. (Christian Pondella) The world is now open to Turski. (Christian Pondella)

I’ve been lucky to live that dream for my entire life. Now the honest truth is, I’ve been struggling with neck and head problems, mainly chronic daily headaches, for too many years now. And I’d be lying if I said I haven’t felt worn down and at times overwhelmed, even defeated. After trying to get a serious handle on my health while maintaining my devotion to the sport, I’ve finally decided that my head is where I absolutely must draw the line...it’s time to give myself the opportunity to heal fully in order to pursue my next dreams and passions.

So, the famous question, what next? From this amazing, arduous and challenging journey I have learned patience, compassion, strength, and the paramount importance of passion in my life. That is the ultimate takeaway.

My fascination lies in performance, more specifically in identifying the mechanisms related to resilience — the ability to rebound and thrive. In a way, the pursuit of a great athletic career has been a selfish endeavor — all of my efforts, and much of the efforts of the professionals who surrounded me, revolved around my own goals and routines. Moving forward, I am eager and feel it is my duty to pass on my insights to the next generation of athletes, and more broadly to youths, to help them tap further into their greatest potential.


In this pursuit, it’s not so much about what I do, but how. It will be, quite simply, embarking on my studies, and publicly sharing my journey with as much heart as I did in sport. As long as I stay true to that, I’ll always be able to answer that very question I was once asked with: I would be doing exactly this.

To everyone who supported me in my pursuits, and there are many, many of you, I’m not sure I could ever thank you enough. Your support has encouraged me, fueled me, picked me up, mended me, and kept me together. When I reminisce about this life of experiences and connections, my heart swells. I am very lucky. I am grateful.

Thank you.

(Large photos by Matthew Garrity and Christian Pondella)

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