I was privileged. I had opportunities. I had working parents and two older brothers to pave the way. I played music. I did my homework. I did my brothers’ homework, too, on occasion. And I played sports. I had big legs but, ultimately, they turned into my pistons for flying down the side of a mountain at 130km/hr. Mom and Dad did their best to set my brothers and me up for life. They enrolled us in any and everything, and, ultimately, we took three very separate paths and all succeeded.
Sounds peachy and perfect, right?
I truly believe each of us has a reality check or a “slap,” if you will, at some point in our lives. Some of us get it early. Some late. Some just sting, while others knock you down and refuel you. And some—well, they knock you out and take away everything you knew to be true.
"I truly believe each of us has a reality check or a “slap,” if you will, at some point in our lives."
At 12, I placed second in the world as a skier. I was fortunate to earn tons of positivity and success as a young girl, but looking back, it came with its sacrifices. Missing my friends’ birthdays for ski camps didn’t feel much like sacrifices then, because I was already competing internationally. Actually, I remember friends asking me if I wanted to smoke weed with them, and I felt so proud to have a reason why not. I wouldn’t be drug tested for another five years, but “I can’t…” and “Don’t pressure me, guys,” always gave me an out. I think my disciplined, introverted self liked the “crutch” of sport. I had an excuse for being a recluse some days, skipping parties, or staying in. It gave me control…and that was a strong enough drug for me.
So from age 6 to 16, I was going forward in a forceful way. I ran fast, I worked hard, I memorized my cello songs, and I got myself onto the National Ski Team right out of high school. And then, I had worldly fun for the next five years. I met friends for life and flew down mountains at 130 km/hr. I struggled at the back of the pack for a while (a standard for most rookies on the circuit), but everything was on track for me to be in my first Winter Olympic Games in my home country: Vancouver, British Columbia, 2010. What a dream!
Two months prior to my Olympic debut, I had a high-speed crash and singlehandedly changed my life in that moment. I laid there, holding my leg, crying, “I’m going to miss my home Olympics.” Thinking of that moment reminds me of how one-track-minded I had been. At age 21, I was wired for my own success in my own sport and nothing else. Actually, I’ve read that knee injuries are directly related with a “fear of moving forward” and a “great need to know what will happen next.” The weekend prior, I had had my best results up until that point: three Top 30 results on the world stage. It’s highly possible that I just fell. But it’s also possible that the idea that I could suddenly become someone I looked up to and become an international star was overwhelming to me. I think it was the latter. As positive and support-filled as my childhood was, I was raised to be humble and modest. I put medals in my pocket before getting home. I learned not to accept compliments. The idea that I would start to be publicly celebrated, whether I wanted to be or not, was foreign. It was frightening. But it no longer mattered. My injury would take me out of the equation completely.
So began my self-discovery chapter. I moved back in with my parents, got tenants for my recently purchased condo, and settled into the soul search. After a lifetime of globetrotting and glorification, I had to find out who I was without what I was known for: “The Skier.”
Over the next two years I would have three procedures to repair my knee and return to competition, only to be cut from the National Ski Team just months before yet another Winter Olympic Games (Sochi, Russia, 2014). Just when I assumed I had graduated with honors for successfully searching for and finding my soul, I had another test. I received an email stating there would be “no solution” with regard to my future in ski racing for Canada. I read the email over fruit and yogurt, on holiday in Mexico while celebrating my “comeback season.” Felicitaciones, eh?
I felt hurt and just wanted to start feeling bad for myself. I shut people out and, simultaneously, I got mad. And I don’t get mad—it’s typically not an emotion I possess. But it found me and it fueled me to find a solution to get happy again. I had a thought: maybe a boardroom of people with the National Team didn’t have to decide my destiny. Maybe, just maybe, I could take it back into my own hands and give myself an opportunity the National Team couldn’t at the time. And if it didn’t work, so be it. Forever, I’d at least know I tried and could graduate to my next life chapter with my chin up and control over my situation.
"I was becoming an ambassador for every man and woman who ever got an “X” through their name and chose to do it anyway."
The next few months, I paid for what I could afford with sponsorships. People slowly found out I was “going it alone,” and consequently it created a bit of media hype. This time I wasn’t shying away from anything. I was Team Larisa: the underdog who was raising $150,000, hiring a coach, and beginning my training solo. I worked hard in the gym and then threw on a dress and some heels for meetings with CEOs. I had no choice but to become a better, more professional, confident, and well-dressed version of myself. I began to be applauded for my doggedness, and this slowly began teaching me that I was about to do something much bigger than me. I was becoming an ambassador for every man and woman who ever got an “X” through their name and chose to do it anyway. I went from a back-of-the-classroom kind of girl to one with a jacket with my name on the back.
No one, including myself, knew what would come of all this energy and tunnel vision. I had an agreement with the National Ski Team that I would have four races in North America to prove I could continue following the World Cup circuit in Europe (where I would need to qualify for the Olympic Games in Sochi). I did everything I needed to do and ended up with career-best results. Middle-aged men were crying all around me. People wanted me to win as much as I did. I qualified for the Olympics and raced to 20th place. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Not because I had the race of my life—I didn’t—but because I believed wholeheartedly in myself and grew into the woman I had dreamed of.
Two years later, I’m currently ranked 10th in the world, and Team Larisa is running in a powerful way. The fundraising campaign is ongoing, as is my self-respect. I settled into somewhere between the back and the front of the classroom. I’m an introvert at heart, but when I walk into a room, I feel much differently than I ever used to. This action alone taught me that taking a chance on myself was the most important thing I’ve ever done. I became my own best friend. I began to notice my self-criticism and ask myself: “What would you do if a friend was hurting like you are?” That question has helped me immensely. I don’t like to call it positive self-talk. I just call it being a better friend to myself. I have established myself as a woman with skills, rather than a skier with talent. The entire process has made me feel powerful and resilient. More than anything, I have learned that I don’t have to be resilient all the time: I can also be plain old successful.
I have finally realized that success is not just for the girls I’ve placed on pedestals, that it’s also a place for me. There was a time for me to learn, and then there was a time to revel. I was so comfortable with putting my head down and grinding that even my coach had to remind me, “You should be proud now, Larisa.” I’ve always tried to fight for things that mean something to me. Sometimes I had to fight patiently, sometimes quickly; sometimes I had to fight respectfully.
"The ugly duckling phase takes courage and grit."
Truthfully, most everything that has mattered to me took some vulnerability. That risk of being embarrassed is so important. If you get embarrassed, it’s only a matter of perception and something that you can rise above. But if you succeed; well, that’s the magic you can carry with you for life. It’s actually a win-win.
The ugly duckling phase takes courage and grit. But it was the best “time out” life could’ve handed me. I pouted, then pulled my socks up and grew pride. And you can too. From a desperate place came a dare to prove myself to myself. It’s a fine line, but there is a small space where one can be normal andextraordinary.
My two favorite things for emphasizing the normal is the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling and Beyoncé’s HBO special “Life is But a Dream.” The poem is a list of reminders on how to stay on top of both your humility and heart. And Beyoncé just so happens to be my female soulmate. Listening to her honesty brings so many emotions to the surface and reminds me of my depth and diva potential.
— LARISA YURKIW X UDD
Superpower DOWNRIGHT DOGGEDNESS
Website Team Larisa Racing
How do you handle—embarrassment? Do you fall to its feet, begging for sympathy, or do you look it straight in the eye and make it fall to yours? If you’re a fellow ugly duckling, chances are you’ve experienced vulnerability a time or two. God knows I have. And so badly, I just wanted to disappear— like poof, “I was never here.” It was 8th grade, and I had just won Athlete of The Year..one of the most coveted awards and one I had worked my ass off to get. I squealed as they called my name. As I walked down the auditorium aisle to accept my trophy, I tripped, fell, and slid all the way to the front of the stage. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including my coach and school principal laughed. Instead of being able to run and hide, I had to rise and make the "Walk of Shame" to accept my award. That feeling is long gone now. But my trophy is forever. My name amongst the other Athletes of the Year — past, present & future — is forever. Vulnerable moments are fleeting, and they will pass.
Larisa is right. Being embarrassed can be a win, not all but some. It can be humbling, a reality check indeed. It can expose our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and ultimately our character. And guess what, every person under the sun has, and will, experience it, numerous times—the hottest and the coolest included.
But embarrassment is only a matter of perception. It’s how you emerge from the smoke that’s the real show. That’s your opportunity to show the world, “I’m here. I matter. And I’m not going anywhere.” With that bravado, you will gain the respect of yourself, your critics, and the world. With that, you get Team Larisa.
When faced with anything in life, you have to choose to fight or retreat. Let life fuel you. Laugh at it, even. Then press, and you will come out on top! Larisa became the woman of her dreams, her own superhero. Privilege can purchase many things, but it can’t buy character, drive, or self-respect. Larisa has paid the price for success. She’s sacrificed time, relationships, and her body, suffering humiliation, frustration, and uncertainty. When seeing her former teammates for the first time after being dropped from the National Team, she went up to each and every one of them and shook their hand. Larisa is a class act. She does the work, and always finds a way to rise from the ashes.
Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh no no! Watch out world, Team Larisa is coming for ya!
Have you ever been embarrassed or vulnerable? Of course you have! Share your experiences of how you got through it. Even if you just prayed the world would forget!