Kaya Turski on big jumps, adrenaline, the Olympics and Sarah Burke

‘Jumping 80-foot kickers is fun to me, whereas for other people it might be a little crazy’

Montreal’s Kaya Turski won her third consecutive gold medal in Women’s Slopestyle at the Winter X Games on Thursday in Aspen, Colo. Turski is one of the shining stars of her sport, in which skiers navigate a terrain park while grinding on rails, going off jumps and performing acrobatic tricks in the air. Following her big win in Aspen, the 23-year-old spoke with Maclean’s about her love of adrenaline, the inclusion of Slopestyle in the 2014 Olympics, and the recent passing of her friend and co-freeskier, Sarah Burke.

Q: First off, congratulations. Winning your third consecutive X Games gold medal—that’s quite the accomplishment.

A: Thank you very much.

Q: I understand you did so by landing what’s called a switch 1080, the first one ever by a woman in X Games history. For people who may be less knowledgeable about your sport, what is a switch 1080, and how did it feel to stick that trick and win the competition?

A: Switch means backwards, so I’m taking off backwards. I do three full rotations and land backwards. Last year, I was the first woman ever to land the switch 1080. I’d done it a few times, you know, in the past. Yesterday, I just decided to try and land it again. I was obviously really, really excited when I landed it. 

Q: How do you make the decision to go for a trick like that?

A: The main thing is, you want to be comfortable with your speed going into the jump, so you know you’re landing in a good spot—not going too big or not landing on the deck, which is the flat part of the jump. The ideal conditions are that it’s not windy out, because that can make your speed quite inconsistent. Luckily, yesterday we had really great weather. The sun was in and out, but for the most part we didn’t have wind.

Q: How old were you when you started skiing?

A: My dad taught me when I was about 3 years old. I skied until I was about 8 or 9, and then I got into aggressive inline roller blading. I did a lot of roller blading in the skatepark and did some urban stuff, which means grinding rails and ledges outside. Then, when I was 16 or 17, I switched back to freeskiing. One day I went to one of their events and fell in love with skiing.

Q: How was the transition of going back to skiing from roller blading?

A: I think it came pretty naturally because I was spending a lot of time in the skate park on transitions like mini ramps and quarter pipes, so I was working on my balance and air sense. When I got on skis it was just kind of a matter of getting used to skis again rather than doing tricks. All the stuff in the park like grinding rails and jumping came pretty naturally to me.

Q: For most people in your sport, is it a natural thing, that sort of air balance and ability to go off those jumps, or is it something that people can learn?

A: I think some people have it more than others, definitely. I think most of us that are doing what we do and competing at such a high level definitely have good balance and good air sense to begin with.

Q: What is it about Slopestyle specifically that got you into it and that you love about it?

A: I’ve always loved to slide through the air and do extreme things. Jumping 80-foot kickers is fun to me, whereas for other people it might be a little crazy. Between Slopestyle and Super Pipe, I just liked the fact that every Slopestyle course is different. Sometimes we have two rail features and then three or four jumps, and the rail features are always different and the jumps can be different sizes, different styles. It’s exciting. You can be really technical and creative on a course. That’s what I really love about it.

Q: I used to downhill ski race—you know with the spandex suits and everything? Before we did a race we spent a lot of time inspecting the course. Is that a big part of what you do?

A: Definitely. We get at least two days of training before we do an event. And the first training session for me, you just go over the rollers, the knuckles of the jumps, and you test the speeds. Inspecting the course and kind of going through it slowly is really important.

Q: What does it mean to your sport now that it’s going to be included in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia?

A: It means a lot. It’s a huge opportunity for us to get more exposure and to show the world what we all love to do. I think back in the day our image was, you know, a bunch of pot smokers, partiers, drinkers, and I don’t know if most people have that idea. But most of us take it really seriously. We’re training hard and trying to stay in shape. Slopestyle skiing and Superpipe skiing are the sports of the future and it’s what kids want to do. I think kids are tempted to go in the snowpark when they’re on the hill. It’s going to be an eye-opening experience and people are really going to enjoy it.

Q: You mention the sort of “ski/snowboard bum” perception of sports like this. Do you feel your sport and others like it haven’t received the respect they deserve in mainstream coverage and commentary?

A: I think over the past couple years it’s been pretty fair. People are starting to see that we take our sport seriously and we do work very hard.

Q: I know this is an emotional time for your sport, given the tragic passing of Sarah Burke. I understand you were friends with Sarah. How much does your win last night mean to you in light of what’s happened?

A: This means even more to me. It was really amazing to be able to go out there yesterday and ski for Sarah. I know she was watching. I feel like she was watching me from above. For as long as I’ve known her, and even longer, she’s been pushing our sport. Even when she didn’t need to, she was learning new tricks, she was landing new tricks and always testing her limits. I wanted to do the same. I want to follow in her footsteps and make her proud. I hope I did that yesterday.

Q: How much did Sarah mean for the development of your sport?

A: I think she played a major role in getting women in the X Games and getting us in the Olympics. She was at the forefront of the sport forever—basically since the beginning of freeskiing. She really is the core of women’s freeskiing. She basically set us all up, and I think we’re all really excited to keep pushing and do what we can for women’s skiing, and skiing in general.

Q: In light of what’s happened to Sarah, the risks and the dangerous aspects of what you do have been highlighted. What is it about the sport that motivates you to take those risks and keep coming back for more and keep pushing yourself?

A: I love to get my adrenaline going. I think it’s in all of our DNA, really. We like to feel the rush. And of course there are inherent risks in the sport, and I think we all understand that, and we’re willing to take the risk. We love what we do. And Sarah loved what she did. We accept it, and that’s it.

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