Larisa Yurkiw travelled a long road back from a catastrophic knee injury to be Canada’s lone woman racing World Cup downhills in Lake Louise, Alta., this week.
The 24-year-old from Owen Sound, Ont., is competing at the Lake Louise World Cup for the first time since 2009.
Injuries before the 2010 Winter Olympics and retirements after left Canada thin in women’s speed events.
Kelly VanderBeek of Kitchener, Ont., is still working on a comeback following a knee injury, but Yurkiw is currently Canada’s best and only women’s downhill hope with the 2014 Winter Olympics on the horizon.
“I think even three years ago, I would have had a hard time with that role,” Yurkiw said. “Lots has happened since then.
“I had to grow up a lot during my recovery. I feel fine with it. The pressure is a pleasure to have because it means people care and they’re watching and I’m happy to be that ambassador for people addicted to speed.”
Yurkiw will be Canada’s representative in the downhills Friday and Saturday at Lake Louise.
Marie-Pier Prefontaine of Saint-Saveur, Que., and Marie-Michele Gagnon of Lac-Etchemin, Que., are expected to join Yurkiw for Sunday’s super-G. Both are slalom and giant slalom specialists.
Marion Rolland of France was the fastest in the second training run Wednesday. Regina Sterz of Austria was runner-up and Marie Riesch-Hoefl of Germany finished third.
American ski star Lindsey Vonn was ninth after winning the opening training run Tuesday. The woman who has won 11 times at Lake Louise stood up well before the finish line to conserve her strength for racing.
Yurkiw was 28th on Wednesday. She earned her first top-10 in 2009 and was developing nicely behind veterans Emily Brydon, Britt Janyk and VanderBeek. But two terrible days in December of that year decimated the women’s downhill team.
Yurkiw crashed during training in Val-d’Isere, France, on Dec. 16, 2009, and tore multiple ligaments in her left knee. VanderBeek did the same the following day. Both women required reconstructive surgeries.
VanderBeek was a 2010 Olympic medal hope because of her three World Cup podiums and a fourth in super-G at the 2006 Winter Games. The Olympic races in Whistler, B.C., were supposed to be a platform for Yurkiw to build on for 2014.
Neither woman could compete in Whistler and they didn’t race a World Cup again for two years.
Brydon and Janyk retired in the meantime, leaving the country that produced Olympic and world medallists Kerrin Lee-Gartner, Karen Percy, Laurie Graham, Kate Pace and Melanie Turgeon scraping for female downhill prospects.
With Yurkiw back, Canada’s downhill prospects at Lake Louise this year are better than in 2011, when the host country filled its quota with developmental racers.
Alpine Canada president Max Gartner is loathe to rush young skiers full-time into World Cup speed events because of the potential for major injuries.
Yurkiw and VanderBeek have travelled similar roads to come back except that Yurkiw is standing in the start gate at Lake Louise and VanderBeek isn’t. VanderBeek is testing her knee at nearby Nakiska.
Yurkiw and VanderBeek returned to World Cup racing for the second half of last season. Neither made it into the top 30, where the precious World Cup points are awarded.
Yurkiw believes the experience of racing with the world’s elite again laid a foundation for this season.
“The coaches kept telling me ‘If you can mentally handle this, it’s really good for you. If you can just fight through this kind of 33rd-placing every day, you’ll learn lots and go at it next year,“’ Yurkiw said.
“I think I definitely have top-10 plans, but to get points — if you are in the top 30 you get points every race — that’s my plan for even this weekend coming up.”
Canadian women’s coach Hugues Ansermoz also wants a top-30 result from Yurkiw and better than that from the three women in super-G.
“In downhill, we want World Cup points. We just need to get on the board,” he said “In super-G, top 20 is our goal.
“The biggest thing for (Larisa) now is that she’s the leader now. Before her injury, we had Britt Janyk, Emily Brydon, Kelly VanderBeek. She was always the young one at the back, in the shadows. She was never under pressure. Now she’s older, she’s a leader and she needs to perform.”
VanderBeek was in such pain in her four races last season, she expected to retire.
“Last spring, I thought I was done, but if there was a way to reduce the pain I was keen to try and keep going,” VanderBeek said. “I didn’t do any off-season training. I just started skiing two weeks ago.
“My knee has definitely improved from last year. It’s holding its own through bumps and stuff like that. Now it’s just a test of how much volume can I do, how long will it take to get back training and also how will it do on jumps and ice and different terrain.”
The 29-year-old says it’s premature for her to say when she’ll race again.
“I’m very realistic and I know I have a lot of work to do to get back racing again,” VanderBeek said. “I would give everything to be racing this year.”
Yurkiw will have a late start number in Lake Louise because her ranking dropped. That’s a disadvantage because the skiers ahead of her chop up the course. Yurkiw also might not have the same weather conditions or visibility as the early starters.
“All the fans are going to have to stay out to the end,” Yurkiw said philosophically. “There’s lots of people who work hard for something, but athletes work hard for just the chance and I’m so glad I have the chance at doing this again.”
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