Before Kaya Turski even took her third run at the women's slopestyle finals at Winter X Games Europe in Tignes, France, in March, she had already won the contest. It was her second Winter X victory of the season, having won slopestyle at Winter X 14 in Aspen earlier in the year. She was starting last of the seven female competitors, and nobody had topped Turski's second run score, a 93.66. She could have chosen not to take that third run, or she could have snowplowed down the side of the course and still won gold.
But that's not her style.
When the cameraman at the start panned to her face, you could tell from the jumbotron at the finish that there was no way Turski was going to take it easy on her final run. Her lips were locked tight, her eyes focused. She looked as determined as though the competition depended on that run.
She floated over the first five jumps, throwing her usual switch 7s and grabs. She has a confidence and grace twisting in the air that she credits to her years as a pro-level inline skater. She stomped every landing. Until the last jump.
On the sixth and final jump, in front of a swarm of spectators, she went for a switch 9. She over-rotated slightly and landed in the backseat. Her right ski popped off and in the instant replay, you can see her do the classic skier's knee injury move -- a backseat twist that strains the knee enough to pull or pop something. The first words out of her mouth weren't "I won." They were, "Ow. My knee. I don't think it's OK."
Since Turski got into the game in 2005, she's been hovering at the top of it. In 2009, she won three Winter Dew Tours in slopestyle and placed third at the inaugural women's slopestyle contest at Winter X. In 2010, she won every slopestyle competition she entered, including Winter X Games, Winter X Europe and a women's invitational in Pennsylvania.
"I'm very competitive," she says. "Most of the pressure comes from me, but my sponsors obviously expect me to do well at competition." She picked up a coveted Red Bull sponsorship just weeks before her first Winter X gold last season. "If there's no pressure, there would be no game, right?" she offers. "The stress gets me going. And it all goes away once I drop into the course."
And when she's in the course, she's definitely one to watch. "She is hands down the best girl park skier there is. She is on another level," says fellow pro Bobby Brown. "I'm not knocking down girls' skiing whatsoever, but often girls will show up to a contest and not look very comfortable with the course. Kaya is the complete opposite; she skis fast and with confidence. She has the biggest bag of tricks and is super consistent."
And to think she's been skiing for only six years. Turski started inline skating when she was 9, in Montreal, and began competing by age 14. She qualified for the Summer X Games and was soon winning international competitions, but by 2005, inline skating was starting to fade and since the shop that sponsored her also sold ski gear, she decided to give skiing a try at age 16. She was a natural in ski resort terrain parks, so she finished high school and moved to Whistler to see where skiing could take her. She did well at competitions and she picked up sponsors quickly.
But then, after just one brief season in the freeskiing spotlight, the injuries rolled in like tidal wives, one after the other. First, there was the pancreas. In November 2006, she threw a 540 and landed at a weird angle at a now-defunct big air event in San Francisco called Icer Air. In the crash, she split her pancreas in half. She had surgery and was hospitalized for two weeks; she didn't ski for nine months.
Then there was the right knee. In the summer of 2007, she was making her comeback from the pancreatic injury when she went off a jump at New Zealand's Snow Park and tore her ACL and meniscus. Surgery followed, and she was benched for yet another winter season.
The winter of 2009 was her first full season back. "I've learned a lot about my body," she says, thanks to the help of some of Montreal's best physical therapists (a career she's considering for herself one day). "I've learned to be aware of what's going on, and it's made me a better skier. A lot of girls in this sport blow their knees. We're hitting all the same jumps as the guys, but the guys are stronger than us. I've learned that I really have to maintain my body to be in this sport. It's gnarly. We put our bodies through things that we should never have to go through, like hitting 90-foot kickers onto hardpack."
In the end, Turski says she doesn't want to be remembered for her injuries; she wants to be remembered for her victories. "So I had a streak of bad luck with my knee and my pancreas," she says. "But I feel like so many people want to just talk about that. For now, I don't want to focus on the injury. I don't want people to think, 'Kaya Turski, oh, she hurt her knee again.' I want people to think, 'Kaya Turski, she's doing great. She just won two golds.'"
A week after the European X Games in March, I got an e-mail from Turski. "My ACL ended up being partially torn but significantly enough to go and operate," she wrote. And then, in her signature optimism, she adds, "The good news is it's looking really good other than that and it's in good shape, so surgery in a week with a strong and mobile leg!"
After her surgery, her doctors told her they've never seen someone bounce back as quickly as she did. Turski spent the summer taking university classes in math and biology, and training and strengthening her knee. By fall, she was fully recovered and ready for another winter season.
Winter X Games 15 will be her first contest this year. And if the reigning Slopestyle champion has her way, she'll be standing on top of the podium again. She has every intention of defending her title this month in Aspen. "Ever since I was little, I've always told my parents and my brother that I would win the gold someday," she says. "I didn't know what sport it would be -- skating or snowboarding or skiing -- but I knew I would win the gold."