ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Alaska will have three athletes competing for Team USA in the Paralympics from March 4-13 in Beijing, China.
Snowboarder Katy Maddry, 20, is competing in her first Paralympics, while 22-year-old cross-country skier Grace Miller is returning for her second Paralympic Games. However, 30-year-old Andrew Kurka is returning for his third round and hoping to defend his gold medal in the downhill ski event.
While all three athletes have vastly disparate stories, all three share two traits in common: all three Paralympians were raised in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and trained with Challenge Alaska.
Challenge Alaska is celebrating 40 years of existence this year after being founded by Doug Keil. Challenge Alaska Executive Director Nate Boltz says the organization now serves approximately 1,000 people with locations in Anchorage, Girdwood, the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su with a wide range of programs.
“If there’s an Alaskan living with disability and they want to find a way to recreate, we’re going to find a way to adapt that recreation to set them up for success and we’ve been doing it for 40 years now,” Boltz said.
Maddry and Miller were both born in Guangzhou, China. Maddry graduated from Career Tech High School in Wasilla and attends the University of Alaska Anchorage where she currently studies architecture.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Katy,” Boltz said. “Watching her develop over the years, watching her personality grow — especially in these last few years as she’s taken competition more seriously — I think that she can reach that top level of competition and be a potential medal contender in the future. Katy is in a perfect situation right now with her athletic development and her prospects to make that dream a reality. She also has a ton of fun doing it and it’s just infectious to watch when she is snowboarding especially when she is snowboarding with members of the U.S. Paralympic team she is in her element. The smile is contagious to watch and she is going to absolutely shine in Beijing.”
Maddry was born with a fibular hemimelia that developed into scoliosis and resulted in a right leg amputation when she was 8 years old. While she trained at Challenge Alaska throughout high school, she just recently began competing and took fourth place at a World Cup event in the banked slalom.
“It was just me and this other girl and another girl and it was awesome,” Maddry said. “I beat her and then the next day I got the call that I was going (to Beijing) and it was like super awesome.”
Miller was born without a left forearm, but began skiing with the Palmer High School ski team before continuing to train at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“What’s been really cool to watch about Grace’s progression has been that she’s largely done it on her own,” Boltz said. “That’s just been incredible to watch the personal drive and following her on social media — she’s in it for the right reasons. She’s in it for fun, she’s in it for health, she’s in it for the social aspect and she has just turned out to be an incredibly gifted natural athlete. That’s been just a lot of fun to watch.”
Miller is currently a college student in Bozeman, Montana at Montana State University and her videos on TikTok have garnered hundreds of thousands of likes. Miller took 10th in the 15-kilometer cross-country ski event in 2018, and skied in three events total at the PyeongChang Paralympics.
“I’ve known Grace for a long time, like we’ve known each other since we were little kids, so seeing her go to the Paralympics was like super awesome and then I’m coming with her now, which is awesomer,” Maddry said.
Miller will compete in three skiing events that will broadcast on NBC and Peacock channels on March 6, 8 and 11.
After an ATV accident damaged Kurka’s vertebrae, he began learning to sit-ski or “monoski” two years later with Challenge Alaska. Now as a gold medalist, Kurka returns to Challenge Alaska to teach other aspiring Paralympians.
“We had a watch party at the last Paralympic games where we as a group sat down and watched Andrew earn his gold medal in the seated downhill,” Boltz said. “That was an incredibly powerful moment in my career as well as in the history of Challenge Alaska. To see the lights come on and you could see the dreams forming in our younger athletes watching that evening as well as the excitement in the room. There’s an immense amount of pride involved as well as it just recharges our batteries and makes us double down on our drive to groom this next generation of athletes to follow in the footsteps of what Doug Keil started.”
Kurka has earned five World Cup medals — including 2017 gold in the downhill — and two Paralympic medals in the two games he competed in previously in 2014 and 2018.
“Andrew is 100% go all the time,” Boltz said. “From the moment we started working with him, it was apparent that if he was going to take that on it was going to be to reach the top tier of that sport and he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.”
Kurka competes in the downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-g and super combined events and has a legitimate chance to medal in any event he enters.
“This truly is the pinnacle of sports for these individuals and the level of competition and the level of commitment that these athletes show is absolutely on par if not greater than what Olympic athletes go through,” Boltz said. “So I just can’t stress the commitment that these individuals have made to this sport enough.”
Boltz said that Challenge Alaska would likely hold watch parties at Challenge Alaska to watch all three Alaskans compete in the Paralympics.
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