Flying the flag in Sochi
Alison O'Riordan talks to US-based downhill skier Conor Lyne, the only member of Ireland's five-strong winter olympic team to be first-generation Irish
Downhill skier Conor Lyne is the only member of Team Ireland at this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to be first-generation Irish, something he is incredibly proud of.
With a father from Kerry and a mother from Limerick, the 20-year-old is very familiar with the Emerald Isle and spends every summer here, becoming more familiar each time with the green countryside as opposed to the snowy peaks in his home in Utah, which is bordered by Colorado to the east and Arizona to the south.
"I would come back to Ireland every summer and I have only missed one summer. I'm very familiar with Kerry where I would have spent most of my time with my cousins just fishing. The same with Limerick as well."
Born in the UK, the alpine skier moved to America aged five due to his father's profession as a microbiologist and this is where he learnt his craft.
A sports-obsessed family, his younger brother Sean plays as goalkeeper for a college soccer team in the US.
"In Utah, the thing to do was ski, so when I was around five years of age I started to get into it recreationally at the weekends. Then I began racing around 11 years of age and then I got into it very seriously once I became a teenager. At 15 years of age I applied to represent Ireland internationally when I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics.
"Fifteen years of age is when one begins to represent a country in the international system. There was no question other than I wanted to represent Ireland. I've been to two world championships, in 2011 and 2013, and I knew then I wanted to again represent Ireland at the Games.
"The only reason we would ski as a family was because we moved to an area of the States that had it. There is no family background in the sport whatsoever. It's pure chance really," says Lyne.
Team Ireland Winter Olympic participants, from left, Sean Greenwood, Florence Bell, Seamus O'Connor and Conor Lyne ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: William Cherry
Almost breaking into the top 50 at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in 2013 has prepared Conor for this major international multi-sport event in Russia, his first Winter Olympics.
Training five to six days a week on snow and then hitting the gym every day in the summer, Lyne is well prepared for his events in the slalom and giant slalom. "The slalom has single poles and one kind of goes in between the two poles and the giant slalom has the flag and it is all time based. There is no judging or anything; it is just the fastest down.
"My events begin on February 19, which is the giant slalom, and then on February 22 it's the slalom. We will train in Sochi on the snow and will do a bit of gym work to keep the body going."
The Olympic Alpine competition consists of five events – Downhill, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super Giant, and Super Combined. The rules are the same for men and women, but the courses differ.
Lyne's odds of landing a medal at the Winter Olympics are low due to the stiff competition from the Alpine Nations.
"The level I am at, it's good for small nations like Ireland to take part but on a world level against the top guys, realistically I wouldn't have a chance at a medal. Austria, America, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France are the big competitors in my events," says the downhill skier.
However, he did get things off to a flying start in Sochi despite his competition chances, by being selected to fly the flag for Ireland in last Friday night's opening ceremony. Tweeting last Friday night, he said: "The proudest moment of my life."
Lyne is heading a five-strong Irish team in Russia, each one of them from the Irish diaspora, including alpine skier Florence Bell, cross-country skier Jan Rossiter, skeleton slider Sean Greenwood and slopestyle snowboarder Seamus O'Connor.
Conor Lyne who will represent Ireland in the slalom and the giant slalom at the Winter Olympics and, inset, Team Ireland members. from left, Sean Greenwood, Florence Bell, Seamus O'Connor with Lyne. William Cherry/ El Keegan
"I would know Florence from the UK. I just met Seamus O'Connor last week for the first time and I hadn't met the others before.
"I'm the only fully Irish member on the team. The others like Florence would be English, really, and the other three would be American or Canadian. Only one of their parents would be Irish and the other parent wouldn't be, whereas with me both my parents are."
Lyne tips San Diego-born professional snowboarder O'Connor as our best chance at securing a medal, who is renowned for doing jaw-dropping jumps down the mountain, but this time with a tricolour blazoned on his back.
"He is a professional athlete and would be in the top 20 or 30 in the world, so he would have a chance at winning," says Conor.
Although Ireland's history in the Winter Olympics isn't great, having never won a medal but coming close in 2002 when Clifton Wrottesley finished fourth in the men's skeleton in Salt Lake City, Conor thinks the future of winter sports in Ireland is getting brighter.
"I think the level of winter sports in Ireland is improving and we should be able to send more and more competitors to future Olympics. Give it a couple of Games and I think it could be strong.
"The reason I am at the level to go to the Olympics is because I live abroad and that's what you have to do, whereas most of the Irish competitors would train in Ireland and go for the occasional week's skiing holiday with the family and train at that time. I've been off college for the last two years, where I was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, to train full-time and that's the level you have to put yourself at, if you want to improve."
With fears of terrorist attacks, and Sochi 2014 reported to be the biggest and most expensive Olympics yet – the total cost is expected to top €50bn – what are Conor's thoughts on Russian President Vladimir Putin using the Games to push himself up further on the international pedestal?
"As an athlete, I throw all that out the window when it comes down to it, as an individual athlete one can't do anything about it, just focus on your training and competing."
For now, Lyne just hopes his extended family from Kerry and Limerick secure the visas to make it to Sochi and support him for his debut on the slopes.