Ireland Winter Olympic hopefuls diverse and fresh-faced
Athletes based in places as far apart as New Hampshire, Norway and Austria
Some of Ireland’s Winter Olympic hopefuls (from left): Alpine skiers John Brown and Brendan Newby, Cross Country skier Tomas Westgard, Alpine skiers Tess Arbez and Pat McMillan and snowboarder Seamus O’Connor. Photograph: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
A tiny island municipality in the middle of Norway. The White Mountains of New Hampshire. Co Clare. These are just some of the places Ireland’s Winter Olympics hopefuls originate from.
Earlier this week, a group of nine athletes descended on Dublin to take part in a series of workshops hosted by the Olympics Council of Ireland and the Sport Ireland Institute of Sport ahead of the Pyeongchang Games due to be held in February.
All nine are at various stages of qualification with six having attained the “A” standard necessary for qualification. The remaining three have achieved “B” standards and will hope to meet the necessary criteria ahead of the final cut-off date in late January. It’s an impressive showing for Ireland and represents the first time it has had six athletes meet the necessary “A” standard for the Winter Olympics.
The athletes are a diverse, fresh-faced bunch competing across a range of disciplines. In fact, it’s the first Winter Olympics for all but one of them.
Seamus O’Connor, a snowboarder from San Diego, is the lone veteran of the group. The 20-year-old competed in Sochi four years ago where he progressed to the semi-finals of both the men’s slopestyle competition and men’s halfpipe competition. O’Connor, who is eligible to represent Ireland through his paternal grandparents, has achieved the “A” standard through his top 100 ranking in men’s halfpipe. As things stand, he requires just one additional competition result to meet the minimum qualification criteria.
Another athlete with the coveted “A” standard is Patrick McMillan, a 25-year-old alpine skier from Ogonnelloe, Co. Clare. McMillan originally had his sights set on becoming a rugby player and played for Leinster’s U-19 squad. However, as it became clear that he wasn’t going to play in the sport’s upper echelons, the King’s Hospital alum switched his focus from rugby to skiing in 2012.
He had previously only taken part in the sport recreationally, but five years on, he is now based in Austria where he trains for 11 months of the year. “I always wanted to represent Ireland at the highest level,” he explained. “I wanted to do it in rugby. It didn’t work out. So now I have this opportunity to do it in ski sports.”
With shaggy blonde hair and a North Face jacket, Brendan Newby couldn’t fit the profile of a Winter Olympian more if he tried. Brendan, also known as Bubba, was born in Cork to American parents, who were teaching in UCC at the time. He returned to Utah at the age of two and this week marked his first time back in Ireland since then. Newby is a freestyle skier who competes in the halfpipe discipline, which sees skiers launch themselves into the air and perform aerial stunts.
Worry not, though – Bubba says he likes being “really scared”.
That’s not the only Cork connection on the team. Freestyle skier John Brown’s mother and paternal grandmother are originally from Co. Cork. He spent a year living in Schull as a child before his family settled in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where he first tried his hand at skiing. Brown now competes in the slopestyle event and is looking good to qualify for the Games, once he “stays consistent” in the months ahead and maintains his ranking.
Thomas Westgard, meanwhile, is from a tiny Norwegian island called Leka. He is a dual Irish-Norwegian citizen with his mother hailing from Dunmore near Tuam. (She met Westgard’s father while holidaying in the Canaries, relocated to Norway and the rest is history.) The 21-year-old participates in cross country skiing, one of the more gruelling Winter Olympics pursuits, and is awaiting formal selection having achieved the “A” standard.
The daughter of an Irish mother, Tess Arbez grew up in France and has been skiing since she was a toddler. The 19-year-old competes in slalom and giant slalom. If all goes according to plan, she ought to follow in the footsteps of her father’s uncle, who represented France in the 1968 Winter Olympics.
The three athletes who have reached the “B” standard have a busy few months ahead as they hope to do enough to qualify for the Winter Olympics.
At 17 years old, Emma Ryan is the baby of the delegation. Ryan was born in Massachusetts to Irish parents – her mother and father are from Roscommon and Dublin, respectively – and competes in slalom and giant slalom.
Cormac Comerford is a 21-year-old from Dublin and the only member of the squad based in Ireland. Comerford started skiing at the age of 10 and cut his teeth on the artificial ski slopes in Kilternan. The DIT student has since represented Ireland in slalom and giant slalom at several elite competitions, including the World Championships.
Finally there’s Kieran Norris, a 22-year-old skier from Little Dunmow, Essex. Norris previously competed for Great Britain and won the slalom title at the English Under-21 Championships in 2014. Norris switched nationality and made his debut for Ireland during the 2014/2015 season – he is eligible through his mother – and is now Ireland’s top-ranked slalom ski racer.
Ryan, Comerford and Norris will know if they have done enough to qualify on January 24th when the International Ski Federation publishes their Olympic qualification lists for each of the snow sport disciplines.