KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – She crashed for the second time, skidded to the base of the hill and stayed down in the snow. As medics rushed to her side, Kaya Turski thought: “Shoot. That really happened?” The X Games champion in ski slopestyle would not get out of the qualification round at the Winter Olympics.
But that was just the end of the nightmare, a nightmare so long and hard it felt like a victory just to survive. The Canadian rose to her feet, skied toward the crowd, bowed her head and held her hands out to her sides – 5 1/2 months after radical surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, 15 days into a battle with an illness the doctors couldn’t identify.
“It got the best of me,” Turski said Tuesday, dry-eyed, relieved. “I really struggled with it. I don’t think I’ve ever cried for 10 days straight in my life. So in a way I’m just glad it’s over. I just want to go in my bed and take some medication and just relax.”
Glad it’s over? Just want to go to bed? This is Kaya Turski saying that, so that’s how bad it was. She has dominated ski slopestyle for years, and now that the sport was in the Olympics for the first time, she wanted to make her mark on the biggest stage.
After suffering a torn left ACL in August in a training accident, she chose to have it repaired with a synthetic ligament wrapped inside a cadaver graft – strong in the short term, but probably not durable in the long term. She had already torn the ACLs in both knees and donated tissue from both her hamstrings to repair them. She didn’t want to go through a long traditional rehab again and miss Sochi, and she couldn’t donate tissue from her hamstrings again even if she wanted to. It was a synthetic ligament and accelerated rehab and long-term risks, or nothing.
Five months later, she returned for the X Games in Aspen, Colo. She came with no expectations. She won gold.
But two days later, she flew to Italy, her first stop on the way to Russia. And the day after that, Jan. 29, she sent an e-mail to her father, George, saying she wasn’t feeling well. She had caught something.
It stayed with her to Sochi. It wasn’t the flu, because she never had a fever, but no one could figure out exactly what it was. It drained her of her appetite and energy. She forced herself to eat. She cut her training time.
“The first 10 days, I just had a really tough time accepting it,” Turski said. “The last three days, I’ve been a little better, because I just accepted that I would ski like this.”
Turski tweaked her left knee in practice Tuesday morning. She texted her father. “She wasn’t even sure she was going to do this,” he said. But she had come too far not to do this. So down the hill she went.
In slopestyle, skiers navigate a course featuring rail and jump features, doing tricks and trying to impress a panel of judges. The rails come first. The rails are Turski’s forte. “As soon as I saw her on the rails, I knew that she wasn’t herself,” her father said. “Very, very shaky. Very uncharacteristic of her.”
The conditions were softer and slushier than they were in training, and skiers were crashing all day. Turski was too hesitant on her first run. She slipped out on the big box feature – “silly little fluke,” she said – and crashed so hard she separated her right shoulder.
It is a recurring injury. Happens two times a year, maybe. She popped her shoulder back in right there on the course, knowing only the best of her two scores would count and she still had a chance to make the final. “It hurts, but you know, I had to give my second run a shot,” she said.
Her father was concerned. “Because of how she was skiing, I knew that she was kind of sort of a wounded bird, you know?” he said. “And I feared for what would happen in the second run.”
Turski stood at the top of the hill before her second run feeling she had nothing to lose, telling herself to do what she knew how to do. The run started well, but when she landed her second jump, she was going backward. She hit a bump. She looked over her right shoulder – her separated shoulder – to set up for her final jump and reflexively turned forward.
“It really was not intentional to do that,” she said. “I completely lost my speed. I was like, ‘OK, cross your fingers and see if you’ll make it.’ And I didn’t make it. I can’t believe I’m in one piece. It’s amazing.”
Turski crashed again and ended up 19th out of 22 skiers on a day Canada put two women on the podium. Dara Howell won gold, Kim Lamarre bronze. “She gave it her all,” Howell said. “I feel terrible for her.”
This was beyond disappointing, beyond frustrating. As she spoke afterward, she turned her head and coughed, told people to stay away and held a lozenge in her right hand. “If it was an injury of sorts, if she fell and she twisted something, that would be a lot easier to swallow,” her father said. “But kind of a common cold? For it to derail not just Olympic dreams, but her particular way of getting here, is really … It’s hard.”
But Turski has sayings written in black marker on the bottom of the red sleeve of her Team Canada jacket, like “WHY NOT” and “you already know” and “no moment defines you.” This will not define her as an athlete, even if she never competes in another Olympics. She has accomplished far too much already for that. And what she did and how she viewed it says a lot about her as a person.
“I think I did an incredible thing just dropping in today,” Turski said. “It’s not necessarily the outcome I was hoping for, but I recognize things in life are not always a straight line or a straight road. It definitely hasn’t been for me in the last six months. I’ve had a lot of rocks or bricks – whatever, cement blocks – thrown my way, and I made it. So you know what? I’ll take it. I’m proud.”
Turski found her friends and family along the fence. Four or five people wearing white Turski T-shirts gave her a group hug, then her father put his hands on her cheeks, leaned in close and looked into her eyes. If there were tears, they were brief. Soon, they were smiling again, even laughing.
“I’m here,” Turski told her father. “I’m here.”