As the Olympic games begin to filter onto television screens across the country, Kurt Oatway, who has family ties to Castor, Halkirk and Stettler, is gearing up to get closer to the action as he aims to compete in his first ever Paralympics run in Sochi this March.
Oatway is the son of Carol Cox, who was born and raised in Alliance and currently operates as Wing Advisor for Castor Cadets #572.
Oatway raced at Alliance Valley Ski Hill as a child and has attended many family gatherings in the area, where his aunts Fran Cox (Castor) and Darlene Neimetz (Stettler) and cousin Tanya Waltham (Coronation) still live.
Oatway, who now lives in Calgary, will be participating in sit-ski (or mono-ski), a downhill event using equipment composed of a moulded seat fixed on a metal frame. Oatway says he’s ready to take on this new challenge and is feeling healthy and optimistic as his competition dates approach.
“I was sick a few weeks ago but I’m over that which I’m glad,” he said. “I’ve got no injuries to speak of which is good.”
Oatway will be active in Downhill (March 8), Super G (March 9), Slalom (March 13) and Giant Slalom (March 15) races when he gets to Russia March 5. His Olympic run of races comes after a week’s worth of training and World Cup Finals in Austria.
“It’s going to be a long month and a half,” mused Oatway, who leaves for Europe on Valentine’s Day.
Oatway was an avid ski racer as a child but gravitated away from the sport during his teens, eventually perusing studies in geology at the University of Saskatchewan.
In September of 2007 while on a sedimentary environments field trip in Utah, Oatway fell off a rock outcrop and plunged 12 meters to the ground, suffering a radial compression fracture of the T12 vertebrae. The result of the damage would be an incomplete spinal chord injury, which would require many months of surgery, physiotherapy and general recovery.
After graduating from University with a B.Sc. in geology in 2010, Oatway found himself pondering his future in a new way when he began watching the Vancouver Olympics.
“In 2010 I had pretty much recovered a decent amount from my accident. I’d just graduated and I was sitting at home when the Vancouver Olympics came on,” he said. “Because I was a ski racer as a kid I was watching all the alpine events and it just got to a point where I thought I can’t give up on skiing completely and never do it again.” He noted that his accident forced him to ponder what he wished to achieve in his life and consider what his passions were.
“Getting injured kind of made me focus on what I wanted to do; I couldn’t leave it to chance anymore,” he said.
Oatway found videos on YouTube of para-skiing and eventually tried the sport himself. Though he said he just wanted to get into the sport recreationally, his quick progress and athletic capabilities began to get him noticed in a big way.
“It just kind of snowballed from there really,” he said. “I got better and faster at it, people started noticing and I got a few key invites.” Oatway competed as early as 2011 at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax, going on to make the national prospects team and placing gold in slalom at the 2013 Canadian championships in B.C. to name but a few successes.
Technique being paramount to any sport, Oakway points out some aspects of sit-ski he has to be aware of while training.
“You don’t want to be leaning back a lot, in the back seat as they call it,” he noted. “The separation between hips and shoulders is very similar to able bodied skiing, because you want to leave the chest and shoulders parallel and square to the hill, facing downhill all the time.” Where difference lies, he said, is in the body’s relation to the ground.
“You’re a lot closer to the ground, so the feeling of speed is actually greater,” he noted. “You get used to it after a while but it’s like going 100 km in a big truck versus a really low to the ground sports car where it seems like you’re going faster.”
Oatway says his days of training as a professional athlete require commitment, early mornings and long days; but he noted much of the challenge is also in the mind.
“Some of the greatest hurdles to get over are to just forget about everything else you’ve done in past, the bad races et cetera,” he said. “You focus on forgetting about what you could have done differently in the past as that’s not going to help.”
Accomplishments, too, can be mental as well as physical.
“Just knowing I can be on the same level as some of the best people in the world is exciting,” he said. “Like [Canadian sit-skier] Josh Dueck; I can give him a run for his money every once in a while.”
Though Sochi is paramount to Oatway’s thoughts, he says he’d like to continue to ski competitively and see where it takes him in the future.
“The Olympic games of 2018, South Korea, are definitely on the radar,” he said. “I know it’s four years away and the Russia game’s haven’t happened yet but it’s definitely something that I want to do. I’m going to keep racing as long as the team will have me.”