Freestyle skier Kaya Turski draws strength, confidence from her family

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2014 Winter Games by Postmedia by Sean Fitz-Gerald Jan 21, 2014 – 1:35 PM EST
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As the rain fell outside on a cool afternoon in October, Kaya Turski was still in an uncertain phase in her comeback from knee surgery. She tore a ligament while training in August, a serious setback for a skier expected to win a medal at the Sochi Olympics, in a matter of months: “It’s been a whirlwind, a roller coaster, whatever you want to call it.”

She competes in a brand of skiing known as slopestyle, where athletes perform a series of daring tricks on their way down the hill. During one exhibition in San Francisco, in 2006, she veered off a landing ramp onto wooden slats, injuring her pancreas. (“Split in half on my spine,” she told The Calgary Herald last year.)

She got back up then, just as she had gotten back up after two other ligament tears in her knees. And she was trying to do it again, this time to make her debut at the Olympics.

“It just comes down to having confidence in myself that, whatever happens, wherever the wind blows me, I’m going to be fine,” Turski said. “It might knock me down, but I’m going to stand up tall again. I’m going to find my way. I probably get a lot of that from my grandma.”

Her grandmother was a champion skier in Poland who, in the lean years after the Second World War, wanted to make a better life for her two young sons, leaving her husband for a fresh start in Montreal despite being fluent in neither of Canada’s official languages. Turski calls her grandmother “the Turski fireball.”

“She’s one of the most stubborn women I know,” Turski said with a smile, as the rain fell outside. “Slowing down, a little bit, at her age, and still will refuse to let me help her up. Refuses to walk around with a walker and all that good stuff, even though she really should be — and that’s on the record, Grandma.”

Kaya Turski's father, George, with his mom (Barbara Lorenc) and his older brother Jack at a wedding this past September.

Kaya Turski’s father, George, with his mom (Barbara Lorenc) and his older
brother Jack at a wedding this past September.

Barbara Lorenc, 92, has insisted on living on her own in Montreal, in a warm condominium not far from where she first landed. And she insisted on setting the table for a guest from Toronto, shuffling the few paces between the kitchen and the dining room, covering her table in a spread of grapes, pretzels, tea and biscuits — both plain and chocolate-coated.

“This is someone to whom it just didn’t seem like there were any obstacles in life,” said her youngest son, George, who is Kaya’s father. “For instance, when we lived in Poland — this is post-divorce — she would insist that we go out of the city on vacation time, for health reasons.”

They lived in Krakow, in the south of Poland. Lorenc would usually fill a duffel bag with camping gear, then load the family on an overnight train bound for the Baltic Sea coast.

“We didn’t rent any place or any rooms,” she said with a smile.

“Those were days when there were few campgrounds,” George said, sitting next to her, at the head of the dining room table. “So we would be out in the wild … and then we would get chased off by the border guards.”

They would pay a bribe, George said, move on, and pitch a tent somewhere else. Both of them smiled. Barbara Lorenc, who has crystal blue eyes, still has a thick Polish accent, and while her English was strong, she sometimes asked George to translate. (That was the only time she asked for any help.)

The post-war economy in Poland made life difficult for the family. They lived in a small apartment. Lorenc, who won a tri-county slalom competition in 1951 — she sent George to retrieve the certificate from another room — soon realized it was time to leave.

“With two boys growing up, I was thinking, ‘What’s the future for them?’ ” she said. “So I was thinking mostly about the future for my children.”

In 1966, she chose Montreal, where her mother had already settled. Lorenc was trained as a pharmacist in Poland, but was unfamiliar with the language in her new home.

“I had some English courses, but just a few weeks before I left,” she said. “When I came here, I was looking for a job. They tried to interview me. I couldn’t manage. But somehow, with sign language … ”

She smiled and laughed.

Her first job, as an assistant at a drug store, paid her 35 cents an hour. She shared a room with her two sons in her mother’s apartment. It was a new life.

“Kaya and I are fairly similar — it doesn’t really matter how many cartwheels we do up in the air, we have a sense that we’ll land on our feet, you know?” said George, a teacher at Dawson College in Montreal. “I think, for me, that comes from my mother. And it’s a priceless gift.”

Kaya Turski and her father, George.

Kaya Turski and her father, George.

Kaya Turski was named to the Canadian Olympic freestyle team on Monday, after she finished third in an event held in Park City, Utah, last week. (She had reportedly not been planning to ski at that event, competing only because there were sudden concerns she needed a strong finish to book her ticket to Russia.)

Turski had been the top-ranked skier in her discipline for five straight seasons, from 2009 through 2013, in the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. She also finished first at the Freestyle World Championships last year, in Voss, Norway.

The 25-year-old will be making her Olympic debut, along with her sport, in Russia. Her grandmother will be watching at home.

“Every time I talk to her, even if it’s on a weekly basis, she asks me, ‘So are you still going to the Olympics? Is that still the plan?’ ” Kaya said. “For about two years now, since my brother got engaged and my cousin got pregnant, she would always remind me that there’s three things she, basically, needs to say alive for. One is to watch my brother get married, one is to be a great-grandmother, and the last one is to watch me go to the Olympics.

“So that’s a big motivation for me. I want to do this for my grandma … I want to wave to her from Russia, on TV. That’s the plan.”

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