Thursday 18 July 2019

Meet the former Leinster rugby star who will ski for Ireland at the Winter Olympics

Patrick McMillan is speeding ahead with his plans to represent Ireland in Pyeongchang. Photo:
Patrick McMillan is speeding ahead with his plans to represent Ireland in Pyeongchang. Photo:

Alan Waldron

For someone who has taken so many unorthodox turns to fulfil his dream of representing Ireland in international sport, it seems fitting that Patrick McMillan now wears the Irish colours while travelling from A to B as fast as possible.

It wasn't long ago that McMillan had his sights set on playing international rugby, and being part of a Leinster U-19 squad that included Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan suggested he was heading in the right direction.

However, an administrative error - it later transpired that he was a couple of months too old for the team - meant that the former centre left the Leinster set-up and his goalposts began to shift.

A period of stagnation on the rugby front, which included a broken leg during his first year of a construction management course in DIT, began and ultimately led to him shelving those ambitions for an altogether different pursuit.

Five years ago McMillan made the bold decision to try his hand at professional ski racing, with little more than annual family trips to the snow for schooling. He moved to Austria to start training with, and racing against, people who had been skiing regularly since they could walk.

He set up camp at a busy training centre in the Austrian Alps in 2012 for what proved to be an educational yet frustrating couple of years. Injuries were inevitable as he continued to push his changing limits, but it was a lack of personalised coaching that McMillan felt was really holding him back.

Patrick McMillan. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Patrick McMillan. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

He was making progress, but things weren't moving fast enough for the speed addict. So, three years ago he linked up with a small team of athletes- two Japanese and one Austrian, who is now representing Moldova - under the tuition of Austrian coach Hans Frick, and hasn't looked back since.

In eight weeks the second round of Six Nations fixtures will barely register with rugby-mad McMillan, as the Clare man will be preparing to risk life and limb in green, white and orange at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, just 80km from the border with their hostile neighbours.

Security issues in that part of the world remain a concern as global tensions simmer away in the background, but the only friction reduction McMillan is concerning himself with is that between his skis and the snow.

"It will be very exciting, but I'm ready for it, it's what I wanted to do all my life," the 26-year-old says of representing Ireland at his first Winter Olympics, which kick-off on February 9.

"I always loved skiing, I always loved the speed. I do it because of the speed, the thrill, the feeling that you get when you're going 120, 130, 140kmh. There's nothing like it."

Fear and downhill skiing mix about as well as oil and water - serious injury is always just one tentative decision away. However, the sport scratches an itch that little else can for McMillan, taking him into a state of concentration as pure as driven snow, a hibernal nirvana.

"If you're afraid of getting hurt you're not going to be a good downhill skier. I'm very aware that every race I go to could be my last, but it's not an issue for me. You don't think about it," he says.

"You could say that I'm an adrenaline junkie, but it's just normal to me. I wouldn't have it any other way. I know it's dangerous, but that's just how it is.

"When you're at the start gate, you see the other guy go and you probably have about a minute before you follow. I tighten my boots, clear my mind of all thoughts. I cut everything out, and just be free."

Born in Letterkenny to an American father and German mother before moving to Clare at five, Dublin for boarding school at 12, and Austria at 21, McMillan's complex accent is appropriately difficult to pin down.

It comes as no surprise to hear that watching Formula 1 is one of his favourite past-times, but it was one of the fastest field games in the world that first got his sporting heart racing.

"Hurling was my first ever sport. I loved it. It's probably also why I'm a little bit crazy," jokes McMillan, who dons an Ireland soccer jersey in his official International Ski Federation profile picture.

"It was mad craic. Up until maybe three-and-a-half years ago I would play when I was at home with the junior team, just with the old lads at Ogonnelloe for the craic.

"But now, because of the level my skiing has gone to, I can't do any other sports.

There was also a skier who did the exact same thing as Rory McIlroy (injured his ankle playing football with his friends) so I don't even do that anymore. I can't go out and play hurling with the boys any more, much as I would love to. I'm sure that whenever I retire I'll go back and I'll play hurling."

Staying fit over the next two months and getting his world ranking down are the only things on McMillan's mind at the moment. The Winter Olympics offers a rare spotlight and he knows he cannot afford to miss this chance to shine, his chance to begin what he hopes will be a lengthy career on the world stage.

It's an expensive game, with his costs for training and competing 11 months a year close to €80,000. Grants from Sport Ireland and the Irish Snowsport Federation help spread the load, while equipment deals and his parents help make up the shortfall for now, but it's not a long-term solution.

Currently ranked 317th in the world in Downhill and 567th in the Super G, he is targeting a big performance in Pyeongchang, rather than something metallic to display on the mantelpiece.

"I am realistic, so is my coach. It's not realistic to think that I'm going to go to this Olympics and win the gold medal. I'll try for sure, but I need another Olympics or maybe the one after that. In between the Olympics there are a lot of World Cup races and also the World Championships.

"The older you get the better you ski. All the best downhill skiers are in their mid-30s now because it just takes all that time to get the experience and all the starts you need.

"I still need four or five years, but I need someone who will give me that support and understand that. Every time I meet the media I need to explain what downhill really takes.

"I need people to understand how young I am and how much longer I have to go, and how the prime of a downhiller's career is well into their 30s. I hope I can ski until I'm 40."

He might have taken a while to find his way, but McMillan is already making up for lost time.

Irish Independent

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