Photography by Ananda van Welij Image by: Photography by Ananda van Welij
"It’s quite an interesting feeling," Kaya says, trailing off remembering the moment. She didn’t feel the pain, just a whirlwind in her head. "How am I going to make it? Can I make it? My ski career, my sponsors—how am I going to break it to everybody?"
She knew right away what had happened and she just had to accept it. "There was no going back." So Kaya moved forward, with an experimental surgery and an accelerated recovery plan that would get her to Sochi to show that she is still at the top of her game.
A lifelong daredevil
But what else would you expect from a self-proclaimed daredevil? "I just like the extreme aspect of anything," says Kaya. "But I think over the years I’ve kind of calmed down."
She spent her early teen years hanging out in the skate park with the boys, doing aggressive inline rollerblading. At the time, she didn’t realize she was already training to be a freestyle skier by learning air sense, balance and how to jump off ramps. At 16, a rollerblade sponsor invited her to a ski event. She hadn’t skied in eight years, but "I just clicked in and I had a blast," she says. She only skied a couple more times before she convinced her parents to let her move from Montreal to Whistler at age 17 to give skiing a real go.
"They were like, 'What do you mean you want to go ski? You don’t even ski. You want to move to Whistler to pursue a ski career?’" Kaya laughs, remembering the impulsiveness of her younger self. Luckily, her parents never had the heart to hold her back from her crazy dreams. "They were the ones driving me to the skate park and picking me up, all bruised and banged up," Kaya says with a smile. "They’ve seen how much I love what I do, how much heart I put into it."
Also lucky was that, even at 17, Kaya had good instincts, and she knew to trust them. "You know when you just know something in life? I had a very strong feeling that I would be good at this, or that I at least wanted to give it a shot." Less than three months after moving to Whistler to pursue skiing, Kaya competed in her first event. And she won.
A connection to the mountains
When Kaya is in the mountains, racing down the slopes and sailing over jumps, there is silence. "I don’t hear anything. It’s totally in tune, mind and body. It gives me a sense of peace," she says. "As soon as I drop in, it’s just like I enter this state of flow, where nothing really enters my mind other than what I’m doing. I don’t even think. It’s just where I’m going. I don’t get that anywhere else."
When she gets to the end of her run, it all comes back: The screaming crowd cheering her on suddenly fills the air. It’s hard not to be a fan when you watch this three-time X Games champion’s runs. In addition to effortlessly grinding over rails and landing complex jumps, she was the first woman ever to land a switch 1080, a move in which she takes off backwards from a jump, then rotates three times before landing. "That was amazing, because I pushed the sport. I set new limits," says Kaya.
An Olympic dream ruined?
But Kaya had another dream, a dream of competing in the Olympics. Slopestyle skiing had never been an Olympic event, but advocates of the sport had been working tirelessly to have it recognized by the International Olympic Committee. In 2011, Kaya got the call that slopestyle had finally been made an Olympic sport. "No one really expected it to make it," says Kaya. "It was a dream come."
When she sustained her injury on Aug. 1, 2013, that dream seemed to come crashing down. But for Kaya, maybe the hardest part of it all was admitting her weakness to the world. "There were a couple people with me when I got hurt. It was kind of buzzing around, but no one really knew. I was planning on, right before surgery, posting 'OK, this is happening. This is real.’ And I was so much more nervous about doing that than I was about the surgery."
In the end, she did tell her story, in part because of inspiration from her friend, Sarah Burke, who passed away in 2012. (Burke, a pioneer in women’s freestyle skiing, died after an accident training on a superpipe.) "It just hit me. It was like, this could all end tomorrow. And what have I done? If I were to disappear, what would be left? Nothing, really," says Kaya. "It’s really the connections you make with people that you leave behind. That’s what exists at the end of the day."
Dealing with self-doubt
Now Kaya regularly updates the world on social media, where all kinds of people reach out to support her or share their own struggles or injuries that are made a little easier by reading about hers.
Those extra connections also help Kaya because, up until the Olympics, she has been dealing with an intense, fast-tracked rehab plan with physical therapy every day. For starters, she spent six weeks learning to walk again then had to retrain her knee so that she could land on it. She couldn’t even get back on skis until December.
"I have a very clear vision of what I want to accomplish. My mind is 100 percent set on going to the Olympics, or at least giving it my best shot," says Kaya. But she knows that winning at Sochi isn’t everything. "At one point I really had no idea who I was if I wasn’t a gold medalist. What happens if I lose? What happens if I get hurt and I can’t ski?" Now that she’s had to face that question head on, she’s stronger than ever.
The look in her eye tells me she’d still like a gold medal, but she’s grown enough to know there are other things in life. And she’s got more than one dream to follow. "I’m going to write a book," she says with a self-assured nod, talking about the future. And I can’t help but think there’s nothing that could stop her.
Learn more about the other amazing athletes on Team Canada.
|This story was originally titled "The Wise Warrior" in the February 2014 issue. |
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