Monday 11 December 2017

Winter tale of loans and loved ones has neat symmetry to it

Canadian-born Seán Greenwood is determined to continue an Irish mini-tradition at the Winter Olympics, writes John O'Brien

Whistler Mountain, Canada
Whistler Mountain, Canada

John O'Brien

Every so often he thinks of the life he leads right now, the luminous target that flickers in the distance, like a shimmering star, and wonders what strain of madness can sometimes take hold of a man. To set such an improbable goal and, worse, to suppose he might even reach it. He thinks of the money he will need to get there. Sponsorship would help, of course, but to get sponsorship you need results. And to get results you need sponsorship. The classic Catch 22.

So he begs and he borrows. He scrimps and he scrapes. He gets by. A loan from his mother helps finance his training. Last May they held a fundraiser in his native Vancouver and the community came out in force to give his crazy dream some much-needed propulsion. Every day that passes he takes a step closer, the star shimmering that bit more brightly, the dream so close he can almost smell it.

What grips a man so tightly he should want to throw himself down a narrow frozen chute, face down on a steel sled, gravity propelling him to speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, nothing to guide him beyond subtle movements of his head and shoulders? Sean Greenwood was studying economics at the University of Calgary in 2005, his mind on finding a regular, pensionable job, when he noticed this strange sport on television. The attraction was instant. He couldn't lift his eyes from the screen.

When he discovered the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics was a mere 10 minutes from his home, it felt like beautiful destiny. "I jumped into a ski suit I borrowed from a friend, put a helmet on and slid down the track. I thought my heart was going to explode. I've tried to find other experiences like it since, but there is nothing more intense and exciting than sliding on a sled, head-first, going that fast."

As a dream took shape, he realised it could incorporate two important strands. He could aim to reach the World Cup circuit, prove himself among the fastest racers on the planet and, maybe, go a step further and compete at a Winter Olympics for Ireland, the country his mother, Sibeal, had left for Canada in 1984, but never abandoned. He took his first international step for his second country last season and the goal began to feel more tangible.

"It didn't seem possible until I was selected by Ireland and started putting a few good results under my belt," he says. "I chose tracks I knew would give me a chance of competing well on and that would give me enough points for a possible position on the World Cup. By the end of 2012, I'd medalled in three races in Whistler and was ranked second on the North America's Cup circuit."

Whistler, a ski resort 100 miles north of Vancouver, is where an aspiring novice might initially go to learn his craft. In the club races in Canada, Greenwood cut his teeth, forging a path through the thicket of the lower levels until he'd accumulated sufficient ranking points to be able to test himself against the best in the biggest races. Since then he's been at least top 20 in every World Cup event he's entered. A sign he is going the right way.

In the next two weeks the knotty business of the world rankings will sort itself and he'll know whether he is Olympics-bound early next month or not. He was 37th in the world last year and razor-keen to push on higher now. "My goal beyond qualifying for the Olympics is to really focus on my finish at the Games," he says. "No one remembers what happened during the regular season, but if you can be at your best during the Games, you can really make your mark."

The confidence he exudes runs counter to the hard road he has travelled. He'd rather conserve the energy he expends in trying to attract funding but, without it, he'd be goosed. So he stays busy on social media, putting his story about and got lucky when a London-Irish renewable energy firm called Livso Energy offered backing. "They just loved the story and the goal of trying to get to the Games. They've been really good to me."

The rest, he says, is "all loans and loved ones". He sat down at the start of the season and worked out it would take the guts of €40,000 to see him to the end when travel, accommodation and sundry expenses were taken into account. Prize money is only a consideration for those who can aspire to top-five finishes. There's the possibility of a grant once he makes the Games. That brings it back to results, though. Back to the unrelenting bind.

"The hard part is I've been competing without a coach at the World Cup races as I can't afford to hire one, let alone a physio or a strength coach, all of whom the other top 20 athletes have. I believe if I could secure funding to afford a good support team I could get into the top 15 if not higher at the upcoming Olympics."

Thinking about what it would mean drives him on. The skeleton has had an Irish competitor for the last three Winter Olympics so he thinks it would be a shame if that mini-tradition should falter now. Like Greenwood, the first of them, Clifton Wrottesley, had Galway connections and he likes the neat sense of symmetry about that. To equal Wrottesley's remarkable fourth place in Salt Lake City would be a stretch, of course, but to be there at all, to be thinking top 15, isn't bad going.

He was four months old when he first visited his mother's homeplace in Galway and hardly a summer or Christmas passed when they didn't travel home to spend time with Sibeal's parents and her eight siblings. After finishing high school in 2005, he moved to Dublin and spent several months working in a Grafton Street café, never imagining that connection and his future sporting career would so perfectly align.

He travelled to Sochi for a training week in November, setting out from Salt Lake City and reaching his destination on the Black Sea coast three planes and 30 hours later. His sled and bags arrived five days later. On a unique and technical track -- three uphill sections, he says, and triple wave corners in which the athlete waves up and down three times before completion -- and in a warmer climate than he's used to, it was another setback to overcome. Plus ca change, he supposes. Such has been his sporting life.

"In the end, I wasn't able to get as many runs on the track as I wanted, but it was still an education in what to expect and in how to deal with a difficult situation under pressure in Russia." As for all the political and social upheaval disrupting the build-up to Sochi? "I'm just doing my best to stay focused on my goal of qualifying," he says, "and competing as best I can at the Games."

And when you think of the road he has travelled, the sacrifices he has had to make in the process, you can hardly blame him for that.

Irish Independent

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