Sunday 22 September 2019

Snowboarder O'Connor back in the loop after knee trauma

Seamus O’Connor returns to the Winter Olympics after a disappointing time in Sochi. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus O’Connor returns to the Winter Olympics after a disappointing time in Sochi. Photo: Sportsfile

Cliona Foley

Getting a five-ring tattoo is a rite of passage now for modern-day Olympians, the stamp of honour for joining world sport's most exclusive club.

Yet you won't find one on Seamus O'Connor, the Californian-born second-generation Irish snowboarding prodigy who made his Winter Olympics debut in Sochi four years ago.

There are two good reasons.

First, because he was only 16 then and being chaperoned by his father Kevin, who is firmly anti-tattoos.

Secondly, O'Connor, appearance-wise, is still the antithesis of his counter-culture sport, a clean-cut kid in an environment where body-art and piercings and are practically the norm.

Prodigies are also increasingly normal in snowboarding where the elites are either teenagers or kidults.

O'Connor was sponsored by Nike when he was only 13. He made Olympic history in Sochi 2014 as its youngest male snowboarder but that is no longer unusual.

Youth helps in a sport that's physically highly attritional and where flexibility, flair and fearlessness are king.

O'Connor made two semi-finals in Sochi and finished 15th in half-pipe and 17th in slope-style yet left disappointed.

"Slopestyle was great, I did a 'triple Cork' which was a new trick and massive for me," he reflects.

But he was gutted to fall on the last trick of his half-pipe semi-final run: "My goal was to make the final and it was a trick I can do in my sleep."

Afterwards he had a month's holiday in Ireland with his Russian mum and English-born dad (whose parents came from Drogheda and Dublin) which included a cruise on the Shannon.

And then reality hit.

"I was a little bit bummed out when I got home (to San Diego) and normality struck. I still had a year and a half of High School left so it took some getting used to."

Post-Olympic ennui would not prove to be O'Connor's toughest challenge.

His prodigious trajectory continued in 2015 when he finished 10th and 13th at the World Championships in Austria but, in September 2016, disaster struck at the season's first World Cup in New Zealand. "I came off the wall too high and landed right flat in the bottom of the half-pipe. I tore ACL (cruciate ligament), MCL (medial) and damaged cartilage, the whole nine yards!"

Even getting home was problematic as doctors wouldn't let him travel for two weeks, putting him on blood thinners for fear of clotting.

He had surgery back home in October 2016 and he didn't compete again for a full year, in the same event last September.

He lost some of his sponsors during his tough year out but the social isolation was worst.

"All my best friends are snowboarders. I felt out of the loop, excluded from that world I've always been in. That was the hardest thing, missing the people and the atmosphere," O'Connor reveals.

"But then I moved back to Park City (Utah) where I usually train, and took up a job judging regional snowboard competitions. I wanted to remain somewhat in that world so worked with a couple of friends and the United States Snowboard Association. That was cool. It was a very different perspective but kept me involved."

At 18 he genuinely feared it was all over.

"There's that moment in every athlete's career where you suffer injury and think, 'I might not get back?'"

"But being injured gave me a lot of time to think and realise this is what I really want to do. It's honestly given me more motivation than ever."

It left him playing catch-up for Olympic qualification so he has dropped slopestyle to just concentrate on half-pipe for the moment.

He finishing 12th in China before Christmas and 15th in another World Cup in Laax, Switzerland last month.

Re-finding that form just a year after a full knee reconstruction is extraordinary and the Irish snowboarder who made international headlines and Irish and Olympic snowboard history in 2014 is now back where he belongs.

  • Olympic Half-Pipe qualification takes place on Feb 13 (4.0-5.30am Irish time); Final on Feb 14 (1.30-3.0am Irish time)

Rest of Team Ireland in Pyeongchang

Tess Arbez

Age: 20

From: Vetraz, Haute Savoie, France.

Tess' maternal grandfather Francis Neerman, the son of a Belgian who came to Ireland to help set up the Carlow sugar factory, grew up in Blackrock, Dublin. He met his French wife when she visited her Dublin relatives to improve her English. Her own father's uncle competed, in Olympic ski jumping, in Grenoble in 1968.

Previous Results: 2016World Senior Championships: 52nd in Slalom, 59th in Giant Slalom.

2015: World Junior Championships: 29th in Slalom, 35th in Giant Slalom.

Olympic Events: Alpine Skiing - Giant Slalom (Feb 12) and Slalom (Feb 14).

Patrick McMillan

Age: 26

From: Ogonnelloe, Killaloe, Co Clare.

Pat played hurling and rugby and, while in boarding school in Kings Hospital, made a Leinster U-19 squad that included Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan. After deciding he would not make elite rugby grade, he switched to skiing. He has deferred his studies in DIT to train full time in Flattach, Austria.

Previous Results: 2015 World Senior Championships: 53rd in Slalom, 58th in Giant Slalom.

2016: Missed 2017 World Championships after bad collarbone injury in December 2016.

Olympic Events: Alpine Skiing - Downhill (Feb 11), Alpine Combined (Feb 13), Super-G (Feb 15).

Brendan 'Bubba' Newby

Age: 21

From: Orem, Utah, USA.

Brendan was born in Cork when his father Van was working as a two-year guest lecturer in economics at UCC. He first skied at four and competed at 13 and races on the World Cup circuit, which is the premier division of skiing. To help fund his sport, he works mornings in a ski-shop and spends his nights coaching skiing on floodlit slopes.

Previous Results: 2017 World Senior Championships 25th.

Recent World Cups: 12th in Secret Garden China (Dec '17) and 23rd in Mammoth USA (Jan '18).

Olympic Event: Freestyle skiing: Half-pipe Qualifying (Feb 20). Half-Pipe final (Feb 22).

Thomas Westgaard

Age: 22

From: Leka, Norway.

Thomas' mum Celia Maloney, from Dunmore in Galway, moved to Norway in 1985 after meeting her Norwegian husband in the Canaries. Thomas, a third-year sports science student, grew up on their dairy farm on the tiny island of Leka (pop: 600). His best event is 50km.

Previous Results: 2017 World Senior Championships: 49th in 15km, 58th in Skiathlon, 77th in Sprint.

Recent World Cups: 70th in 15km pursuit and 81st in 15km Classic, Toblach Italy (Dec '17).

Events: Cross-Country skiing: Skiathlon 15kmx2 (Feb 11), Sprint Classic (Feb 13), Free 15km (Feb 16) and 50km Classic (Feb 24).

Irish Independent

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