When freestyle skier Kaya Turski realized that she had torn the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in her left knee—again—she was devastated. The Winter Olympics were just six months away, and Turski knew this type of injury usually takes nine months to heal. “It’s been, and continues to be, one hell of a rollercoaster ride,” Turski said about her road to the Olympics.
She thought her Olympic dream was over, but an alternative knee surgery that used a synthetic and cadaver ligament has given her hope.
The 2013 World Freestyle Ski Champion and seven-time X Games gold medalist has held the Association of Freeskiing Professionals number-one world ranking in Slopestyle for five years. Turski, 25, was the undeniable favorite for gold in the Olympic Ski Slopestyle inaugural event in Sochi, Russia.
Now, she is the underdog.
It was August and Turski was training at Mt. Hood in Oregon when a training run went wrong. After seeing numerous doctors and specialists, Turski opted for the synthetic and cadaver graft, which is expected to cut the recovery time in half; the longevity of the surgery is unknown. The goal is to have the immediate strength of the synthetic ACL so she is ready for Olympic competition, but also have the longevity that a cadaver graft can provide. “I think it’s safe to say that this is probably many Olympic athletes’ worst nightmare,” Turski said. “Having an injury right before the Olympics definitely brings up crunch time.”
The 5-foot-5-inch Canadian was born to a Polish family in Montreal. Turski grew up an athlete. A brown-eyed brunette, she was first a skier, then a snowboarder, a professional rollerblader, and a high school rugby player. Ever since Turski hung up her inline skates for a pair of twin-tip skis at age 17, she has been a dominant force in freeskiing.
In 2011, Turski became the first woman to land a switch 1080—three full rotations while taking off and landing backwards. She is the most winning slopestyle athlete in the history of the sport.
Her advanced tricks set her apart from other skiers, but it is her style that constantly puts her on the top of the podium, according to Jeff Schmuck, communications manager for the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. There a lot of girls nipping at her heels, but the competition drives Turski to ski harder, and push the sport in the process.
“She is a very smooth skier and also very technical,” Schmuck said. “You don’t see too much fear in her while she is skiing—she has a lot of guts.”
Turski, along with the late Sarah Burke, are often noted for progressing women’s freeskiing and lobbying for women’s rights in competition. Burke, a halfpipe skier who died tragically in a skiing accident in 2012, is still the person who inspires Turski the most. “Sarah paved the way for women’s freeskiing,” Turski said. “She played a key role in the development of the sport and was a big part of the reason we are going to the Olympics. I doubt she would have backed down had she been in the same position I am now.”
Before the injury, Turski said she was feeling strong and that the accident was an unlucky fluke. She originally planned on spending the summer training at the Red Bull center in Santa Monica, but instead spent time in Vancouver gaining strength and knee stability from physical therapy and cross training. Three months out from the Olympics Turski was back on snow, training at the Unbound terrain park at Mammoth Mountain in Calif. “I’m feeling confident,” Turski said. “It’s different (from previous injuries) because it’s almost as if it’s in fast forward; the rehab is much quicker.”
Whether or not Turski will still be competing in another four years, she doesn’t know. She has artistic and creative endeavors, and also thinks about going to school for sports psychology. For now, Turski says she is looking forward to representing Canada in the Olympics and showcasing freeskiing to the world. “There is a lot of attention on whether or not she’ll be ready for Sochi, but I think she’ll be fine and dandy,” Schmuck said. “One of the great parts about freeskiing is that our sport is so dynamic that it’s really anyone’s game.”
But even with Turski’s injury many people still consider her the one to beat. “I’ve always kind of struggled with my identity as this gold medal favorite,” Turski says. “(The media) pegged me as the queen of slopestyle. When (the injury happened), I feel like I lost that identity and it was one of the coolest things that’s happened to me.”
—Monica Prelle is a freelance writer living in Mammoth Lakes, CA. @monicaprelle