OLYMPIANS:Skier Shane O'Connor, who also holds down a fulltime job in IT, will be representing Ireland at the winter Olympics in Vancouver next week, writes GRAINNE FALLER
‘IT’S LIKE DRIVING a car as fast as you want without getting into trouble. Skiing powder is almost like surfing with the snow flying over your shoulders. It’s a real adrenaline rush.” Shane O’Connor clearly adores his sport. Admittedly, it’s somewhat unusual for an Irishman to be an Olympic-standard skier, but O’Connor takes it in his stride. The Olympic Games in Vancouver beckon next week and O’Connor is doing his best to remain calm and focused.
“I’d be well-known in the past for suffering really badly with nerves,” he says. “They’ve lessened as my confidence has improved, but I’m sure I’ll be a wreck before the race in Vancouver.”
He’s competing in the slalom, the one where skiers hurtle down a mountain, zig-zagging between coloured poles on the way. It’s a sport that relies on precision. “In the world championships last year, only about 26 people out of 60 starters finished in the final race. That’s the way it is. One mistake and you’re finished,” O’Connor says.
We meet in Dublin’s IFSC, where O’Connor works in IT. He’s on his lunch break. Later he’ll hit the gym for a couple of hours. Over the past few weeks he flew to Switzerland and France for a couple of pre-Olympics practice races. The aim was to complete as many races as he can, making sure he’s match-fit, as it were.
It’s all a long way from where he started. His parents were keen skiers well before the rest of the country had cottoned on to the sport. “My folks used to bring us to different resorts every year,” O’Connor recalls. “People in school used to wonder what we were doing. I mean now everyone’s a skier or a snowboarder but back then it was very unusual.”
He had a natural talent from the start. “Kids by their nature are good skiers. They’re not afraid to fall, they don’t have a fear of going fast, you just throw them out there and off they go. My parents also used to bring me up to the dry slope in Kilternan. There used to be classes there – race training and stuff for kids. I always enjoyed it and being good at it was a motivator.”
Hurling was also an obsession as he was growing up, but the skiing came first. By the age of 18, he had been chosen to be part of the very first Irish team to be sent to a world championship. “That was 1993 in Japan,” says O’Connor. “Really, that was the birth of Irish ski racing. I mean being realistic we probably shouldn’t have been there. We were so far away from the standard but it opened a door.”
The following year, disaster struck. “I was playing inter-county hurling for Dublin and I was starting to have a lot of problems with my knee. Of course I did the classically stupid thing and tried to play through it,” O’Connor grimaces slightly at the memory. “It got to the stage where I couldn’t ski. I went to all sorts of physios who couldn’t diagnose what was wrong.” Eventually a diagnosis of osteo-arthritis was made. O’Connor was advised to give up both hurling and skiing. By now it was 1999 and he hadn’t been able to ski for four years.
The news would have been devastating but O’Connor insists: “Giving up on sport just wasn’t an option for me. As it turned out I found a physiotherapist who diagnosed the whole problem as being a result of slight flat-footedness – very minor but it was causing a misalignment of the knee and hip and resulting in all these problems. I worked with her for about eight months and I was able to return to sport.”
By 2002 he was back on skis and back on form. He qualified for the world championships in 2003. The Olympics, as yet were not even on the radar. “It’s strange but I’ve been to all these world championships and they seem so minor in comparison to the Olympics,” O’Connor muses. It took a fresh pair of eyes to set his mind on the Olympic trail.
Skiing has always been a part-time thing for O’Connor. He has a full-time job and had always assumed that to qualify for the Olympics he would need to be on snow full-time. “At the world championships in 2007 I was talking to an American coach one day. He said, ‘How come you don’t talk about the Olympics?’ and I said, ‘Well, I can’t do it full-time because I have a job and it’s not something I can get into.’ He told me that I was mad. That I was good enough to go and that I could be as good as someone who skied full-time. That put the idea in my head and I started trying to get more time on snow. Then the year before last I got some results that made me think, ‘Hmm, I could do this.’ ”
It takes huge commitment. O’Connor laughs in agreement at the suggestion that his wife must be enormously understanding. “Yeah, I’m lucky because she skis as well – that’s how we met,” he says. “She reminds me now and again that she’s letting me be selfish this year. You can’t let all of this eat too much into work time, so it ends up eating into every bit of free time I have. I’d be in work by eight, finish work and in the gym before six, home by half eight, have dinner, by which time you’re thinking about bed.
“You have to be totally single-minded. There’s no other way to do it. I’d be lying if I said that I’m not looking forward to when I don’t have to do all that. But you have to make a choice and live with it. I’d certainly choose what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
So how is he fixed for the Olympics? He certainly looks in top shape. “I’ve probably never been fitter because I’ve been doing a lot of gym work,” he says. “Last year was like the breakthrough. I always knew I could ski like I did last year, but I don’t think I ever had enough time away to get there.”
Time spent skiing on snow appears to be crucial. “Yeah, you need that time on snow,” O’Connor says. “It’s like any sport, you have to be doing it all the time. Before last year we were never out for long enough for everything to gel. But last year I did a lot of trips that were very close together. I’d be out for a week and back for four days and out again, so I was never really away from snow for a long time. The results just got better and better as the season went on. Right now, I think I’m skiing pretty well so I’m optimistic.”
When asked about his hopes for Vancouver, O’Connor smiles and shrugs slightly. “That’s the 64 million dollar question isn’t it?” he says. “I don’t know. The thing with ski racing is that you just can’t tell what will happen on the day. It’s pretty unforgiving. I’ll be happy if I ski as well as I believe I can ski. I think if I do that I can get a decent result.”
Obviously there is a circle of competitors who are probably out of reach. “There are the guys on the world cup circuit who live to ski. It’s all they do,” says O’Connor. “But there is a second tier in these competitions, often from smaller non-snow nations, so you might have the likes of Israel. We would look to compete with those guys. You’re not going out and saying, well I’m just going to cross the line. You actually have people to really compete with.”
Considering he has achieved what he has on a part-time basis, does he ever regret not having the chance to see what he could have achieved as a full-time skier? “Honestly, I wouldn’t change it,” he says. “I got the benefit of being able to live the life of a professional athlete to a degree, but then I got to have a life outside that. I’ve been able to get married, buy a house, put down roots. I’m not at the point where I’m getting older and wondering, ‘Well, what do I do now?’”
He is 36 and Vancouver will signal the end of his slalom career. At the moment he is entirely focused on the road ahead, but the question, ‘What next?’ does cross his mind. “It’s funny because every now and again a thought comes into my head – what am I going to do after the Games? It’s weird because I’m really supposed to be thinking about hanging up the boots and maybe focusing on coaching, but I don’t know, maybe there’s something in some people that gives them that need to compete. I’m already thinking of doing some freestyle afterwards. It’s not as time consuming for travel because you can do a lot of the training in Kilternan.”
For now, the Olympics is enough food for thought. O’Connor is conscious of those coming after him. “For me, going to the Olympics is a huge goal but it’s also about getting my skiing to a level that nobody has reached yet. I coach kids in Kilternan and there are some teen skiers and a couple of people in their 20s coming up. People who went before me showed me what could be possible. I hope I can do the same for them. It’s a legacy thing.”
The opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver takes place next Friday