By Susan Doran
Larisa Yurkiw, not long ago one of the top ski racers in the world, left the sport in 2016 highly regarded as someone who competes on her own terms.
That reputation was hard won. Yurkiw was ballyhooed as Canada’s great Olympic alpine underdog skier. Hers has been described as a Hollywood-worthy bounce-back story, which has earned her icon status in the eyes of many.
Now a motivational speaker as well as a rookie Realtor with less than a year under her belt at Chestnut Park Real Estate in Collingwood, Ont., Yurkiw, 31, is discovering that her elite athlete skill set seems to be a good fit in her fledging real estate career.
She says she is as stubborn as they come. A big believer in risk taking, she is grateful to have gone down a tough path where she was forced to stretch herself, resulting in greater success. This theme now threads through her motivational and real estate careers. Her athletic journey has apparently translated into a ballsy approach to the business world, which can be summed up in the phrase, “Be brave.”
“I skied 140 km per hour down icy mountains and feared for my life on a weekly basis,” says Yurkiw. “I am painfully optimistic. I wake up with an expectation on myself to go at things with a high-achieving mentality. I am intentional about what I am doing. It’s the only way to maintain momentum.”
The opportunity to prove herself in a new field appeals to her. “Sport is a selfish career choice. You take from everyone. Real estate is about service, which gives a whole new perspective.”
Yurkiw grew up skiing Georgian Peaks on the Niagara Escarpment. She competed on the World Cup circuit, having made the national ski team right out of high school. But she seemed poised for a slide into oblivion after she sustained what the media deemed a “career ending” knee injury just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Almost every piece of connective tissue in her knee required repair.
Having lost her chance to compete on home soil, she recalls watching on crutches while the Olympic torch relay passed her family home in Owen Sound.
“It was devastating,” she says.
After several surgeries and a couple of years of rehab, she returned to the race circuit, sights set on the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But she was soon cut from the national team – cast aside in her mid 20s.
“I got bitter a bit,” she says. But she was not ready to give up.
“My Dad said, ‘A little chip on your shoulder is not always a bad thing,’” she says.
Crushed, desperate and bereft of national support, she took matters into her own hands and made the unusual choice of founding her own funding and management vehicle, Team Larisa, outside the umbrella of Alpine Canada. Raising six figures in funding as an independent athlete was hugely stressful. But it worked. She got to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics, finishing 20th.
“The Olympic moment – coming through the finish line as an independent – was huge,” says Yurkiw. “It took me awhile to be objective about that. I had to put my legs over the side of the bed to put my socks on before competing. That’s how little strength I had. Miracles happen.”
Then-CEO of Alpine Canada Max Gartner was impressed. “She personifies what it means to fall down, dust yourself off and keep going,” he was quoted as saying.
Yurkiw went on in the next couple of years to climb all the way up from a 77th World Cup ranking to third.
In her final season she was in pain right from the start. “I knew it would be my last season. I knew what it would take and I knew I no longer had that. I could see my conservative decisions on course, and to me that’s not racing…But I also knew I’d be able to perform under pressure, and I gave it everything I had.”
It turned out to be the best season of her career.
Retirement sent her into “withdrawal.” She recalls going to grocery stores just so she could talk to people.
“Being bored is a dangerous place for me,” she laughs. “I have too much energy. I need my sticky notes and to-do lists.”
She started her own motivational speaking business, her status as an extreme athlete and the setbacks she had overcome providing “flash for corporations,” she says.
“My motivational career was instant, coming off being ranked third in the world.”
She’s especially proud that her greatest successes came after becoming an independent, a fact that she considers integral to who she is.
“Going independent completely changed the way I walked into a room. Before that I struggled with self esteem. I was beyond introverted. Some people aren’t as lucky as me to be challenged in that way. It helped me grow and has served me well in my career.”
Being of the opinion that business is what you make of it, the potential in a career in real estate appeals to Yurkiw. “It’s limitless,” she says. “I’m new to real estate, but not new to closing deals.”
She’s certain that her past experience, turning failure into opportunity by building a unique business enterprise, bodes well.
“There is a lot of failure in both real estate and sports. You’ve got to have the resilience to pick yourself up faster and more creatively than the rest,” she says. “When I have a setback, I ask myself how I can do better next time. I feel that comes from the athlete in me.”
Yurkiw had assumed that her real estate client base would be comprised of her ski racing network. But as it turns out, she has “lots of clients who have no idea” about her previous career in sports.
That’s okay with her.
“The public side of being an athlete was pleasant, but it’s not why I was doing it,” she says. “I did it to believe in myself.”