Val d'Isère, in the French Alps, is not a mountain Larisa Yurkiw was keen to ski again at 120 kilometres an hour. It was there, in late 2009, that she ripped apart pretty much everything in her left knee there was to rip apart.
Yurkiw was 21 when she crashed. Her surgeon originally thought she would have to retire. She didn't race for two years, and when she returned, she struggled and was dropped from Canada's national alpine team. So she hustled to sign on her own sponsors so she could keep competing on the World Cup circuit. It was an often threadbare existence, but her resolve slowly began to pay. The work she put in to stay in ski racing and gain experience on the treacherous downhills in Europe stoked a confidence she hadn't had before. Racing, Yurkiw says, "almost feels like it's slowed down."
This past December, Val d'Isère marked a new beginning for Yurkiw. She finished third, followed that with second-place finishes in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria, and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and a pair of fourths in Germany and Italy. The consistent results have the 27-year-old ranked second in the overall World Cup downhill standings, behind only U.S. star Lindsey Vonn, going into the season's final downhill Wednesday in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
It is the best winter of any Canadian downhiller in more than two decades and, with a win on Wednesday, it would rival the best seasons of Kate Pace and Ken Read.
It hasn't earned Yurkiw widespread acclaim in Canada, but it has polished her reputation in Europe and among her peers, and has put Canadian female downhillers back on the World Cup map. "What she's done for women's ski racing, it's hard to put into words," says Emily Brydon, a retired downhiller and former teammate. "She's breaking ground." Steve Podborski, the only Canadian to win a World Cup downhill title, says the winter-long rigours are extreme. "You really have to be a great master of many, many skills," he says. "And you have to be pretty flawless the whole season long just to survive."
To Yurkiw, however, while the climb to second in the world has been long and arduous, the climb is not complete. "I have yet to win a race," she says. "I'd be lying if it wasn't on my mind."
Yurkiw, raised in Owen Sound, Ont., grew up skiing at Georgian Peaks on the Niagara Escarpment. "She always wanted to go faster," says Lynda Montgomery, Yurkiw's mother.
Yurkiw made the national team at the age of 17 in 2005, and her breakthrough performance came in early 2009, when Yurkiw won the downhill portion of a combined event in Austria. She had arrived.
Ten months later came the crash in France.
On Dec. 16, 2009, during training, Yurkiw – who had never raced the downhill course at Val d'Isère – crashed a third of the way down. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler were less than two months away, and she knew immediately she wasn't going to achieve that goal.
Her left knee was a mess, but Yurkiw was initially hopeful. "I had no clue," she says, "what I was in for."
Three days before her New Year's Eve surgery, the Olympic torch relay passed directly in front of her home. It was a bitterly cold night. She stood there on crutches, watching.
She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, lateral and medial menisci, and patellar tendon. "It was a devastating injury," says Robert Litchfield, one of Canada's top knee surgeons and the man who performed her complicated, three-hour procedure.
The rehabilitation was complicated. A healing patellar tendon needs the leg to stay straight, while the other ligaments need the knee to flex a bit. "All I really wanted at the beginning was to walk without a limp," Yurkiw says.
Her usually buoyant personality darkened at times. Months passed between rehab milestones. There were more surgical procedures on her knee.
But 19 months later, she was back training on snow with the Canadian team in New Zealand. The speed jarred her, reminded her of the possible consequences. A second training camp in Chile was difficult and painful. She thought about quitting. In December, her first races were in Alberta on a minor-league circuit. She won several, but she was racked with doubt. "Doubt with a capital D, bolded, italicized and underlined," Yurkiw later wrote.
At the end of January, 2012, she was back on the World Cup but battered by "full-frontal" fear. She couldn't crack the top 30.
The next winter, when Yurkiw had to prove she was a contender for Canada's 2014 Winter Olympic team, it didn't get better. At moments when she had previously been daring, she would pull back. Her best World Cup downhill finish was 37th.
"It's easy to be fast when you're never hurt yourself," Brydon says. "You're naive and you're fearless. How do you attack a downhill race that nearly killed you? The mind takes much longer [to recover] than the body."
Meanwhile, at Alpine Canada headquarters, funding had been slashed after the 2010 Olympics. The women's downhill program was cut in spring 2013. Yurkiw was in Mexico on a short holiday with a friend when she found out. She was eating breakfast. An e-mail arrived from an Alpine Canada coach to tell her, after eight years on the national team, it was over.
Team Larisa Racing was born.
Yurkiw, convinced she could make the Olympics, suddenly had two jobs: ski racer and CEO of her own small business. She would dash between the gym and business meetings. "The stress changed completely," she says.
Eli Dadouch, CEO of Firm Capital, a Toronto real estate investment company, became a mentor and financial backer. "Run it like a business," he counselled Yurkiw, "and never burn a bridge."
"I'd meet six times and nothing would happen," Yurkiw says of her fundraising efforts, "or I'd have an hour-long conference call but zero dollars would come from it." Keep pushing, Dadouch instructed. "She was shy and reluctant," he says. "Don't be afraid. Who cares if somebody says no? Go to the next one."
The bare minimum was $150,000 to chase her Olympic dream. Yurkiw paid $25,000 of her own money for the first summer training camp in Switzerland, and Kurt Mayr, an Austrian coach, was an essential partner. Mayr had previously coached Austrian downhill star Renate Goetschl and had been with Alpine Canada for one winter. He was out of work, too. He agreed to coach, and helped on everything from logistics to accounting.
"We didn't know if we had the money to make it to the first race of the season," says Mayr.
Money started to come in, and then came the results. Yurkiw's pre-Olympics season started with a career-best seventh place at Lake Louise. A few weeks later at Val d'Isère, Yurkiw confronted the past and finished 14th. She joked about rekindling her French affair with the mountain, sharing a cigarette.
Sochi was within grasp. She qualified in early January in Austria with another career best, sixth at Altenmarkt.
Then, three weeks before the Olympic downhill, Yurkiw hurt her left knee again, on a training run in Italy. She was stuck in bed for half a week. She pushed on. In Russia in a training run, she sprained an ankle. She pushed on. She finished 20th in the Sochi downhill.
Another surgery brought pause. "Just because I can have surgery, and I can recover, and I can maybe make it back, do I need to do this?" she asked herself.
A month later, she went under the knife. It was simpler than in 2009. Litchfield partly rebuilt the ACL and rebuilt the MCL. One more surgery followed. The knee was hardier than before, as was Team Larisa Racing.
There have been offers of national team membership from Alpine Canada, but they haven't been for a full downhill season. Yurkiw kept on with Mayr. Their budget approached $250,000. A fraction, $24,000, came from the federal and Ontario governments.
"It's a shame," Dadouch says, "that a country like ours, with all our vast resources, cannot support our national athletes."
Yurkiw and Mayr have had to be creative. Co-operation with several countries that have small downhill teams, such as Sweden, has resulted in an unconventional, multinational squad. And Yurkiw kept climbing up the rankings. In 2014-15, she scored her first podium, a second-place finish, and by that winter's end, Yurkiw had scratched into the elite ranks of downhillers, finishing 10th on the season.
"I needed the independence, especially the first year of Team Larisa," Yurkiw says. "This was the goal. It didn't work for a while. It was pretty slim for a few years."
At Val d'Isère in December, the margin for financial error was still somewhat slim. Yurkiw lacked a lead sponsor and didn't have her entire season budget together. Standing on the podium in France, she wore a patch on her tuque that read "Available." Freedom 55 Financial, which had signed on several months earlier, soon after took the role of Yurkiw's lead sponsor.
Going into Wednesday's final downhill of the season, Lindsey Vonn has already secured this season's title. Next winter, Mayr sees the potential of Yurkiw becoming the first Canadian woman to win the World Cup downhill title. Beyond that are the 2018 Winter Olympics. "This journey," Mayr says, "is still not finished."
A reconnection with Alpine Canada is possible. The organization aims to have a women's downhill team back in place by 2018 and already has a successful junior star, Valérie Grenier, a 19-year-old from St. Isidore, Ont.
"There are a lot of ways to find a new relationship for next season," says Mark Rubinstein, CEO of Alpine Canada.
Max Gartner has seen Yurkiw since the beginning. He was chief athletic officer of Alpine Canada when she made the national team, and was CEO when the women's downhill program was cut.
"You can't see in an athlete's heart, their desire, what they've really got in there," says Gartner, now a consultant. "That invisible part, that's what gets you to the very top. Larisa just amazes me, how deep she dug, and how far she's come."