Sky the limit for snow prodigy O'Connor
WINTER OLYMPICS SNOWBOARDING:ONE OF the YouTube videos introducing snowboarder Séamus O’Connor asks: “What were you doing when you were 11?” Don’t answer that. Whatever it was, it’s unlikely to compare with performing perfectly executed off-piste backflips and rail slides.
Similarly, no matter what mischief you were up to by the age of 12, it didn’t include being crowned Burton European Junior halfpipe champion in a division populated by boarders up to two years your senior.
Last month, the young American retained that title, a week before winning the World Rookie Fest Grom (young boarder) division in Livigno, Italy. On January 26th, he moved to 35th in the TTR men’s world rankings, to join some of the biggest names in the game at the business end of his sport. He is 13.
For those close to O’Connor, it had all been coming for some time. That’s why Nike, Oakley and Ride are on board. Though he doesn’t act it, the kid is in demand. And yet, it seems, the only ones looking in the other direction, could be among those to benefit most.
In May last year, Séamus’s father Kevin sent the Snowsports Association of Ireland (SAI) a link to the youngster in action, requesting permission for him to represent the home of his paternal grandparents.
His credentials are open to scrutiny. His name is a dead giveaway for a start, but just in case, his grandmother hailed from Drogheda and her husband from Dublin. Kevin grew up in England, where his parents and family still reside, but has spent the last 30 years in the USA.
An inherent scepticism of such approaches meant the video was briefly shelved in the novelty section, until Alpine development officer Shane O’Connor (no relation) had a look. It was clear to him this wasn’t just some chancer seeking funding.
“When I saw the YouTube clip, I thought, ‘God, a 12-year-old doing this sort of stuff, it’s too impressive to not, at least, follow up with his father and find out what his background is’.”
The former Olympic skier knows talent and technique, whether it’s in his discipline or not, and his opinion was taken on board, a meeting was arranged and the paperwork was completed. Despite firm proposals from the USA and Russia – the birthplace of his mother, Elena – Séamus officially became one of us – without the bankruptcy and bitterness.
The snub was particularly acute for the Russians given the Winter Olympics 2014 will take place in Sochi, a mere 130km from Maykop where Elena’s family hails from. They put their plan to the O’Connors, as did the Americans, but the decision was left to Séamus and he opted to do the approaching. He wants to stand out from the crowd.
“I might as well be one of a kind and not go with America,” he jokes from his home in Park City, Utah. “It would be a cool and an amazing thing to ride for Ireland,” a country he describes as “awesome”, having visited once already.
“Going with Ireland, I thought, would be fun. It’s where my family is from, for the most part, and I just thought it would be a cool thing to go with.”
The teenager openly admits it’s not a completely selfless act. The US and Russia are overloaded with talent and his, despite being particularly well honed for one so young, might have gotten lost in the quest for world domination.
“If I wanted to go to 2014, it would be very hard. I mean, Shaun White will still be there!”
Qualification for the Olympics is complicated, especially if you’re competing with American or Russian talent. While Séamus might obtain the standard, just four places from 42 are awarded to each nation, rather than the riders, meaning a boarder who makes the grade does not necessarily get to travel. Instead, a 16-year-old Séamus would likely see White, or someone similar, parachuted in instead of him. “If I go with Ireland it would be easier to get in and I can focus on my training and not worry about the spot.”
While “funding would be nice”, the big draw is the big stage. “They’ve accepted me for the Irish team and that in itself is a great honour. It’s not so much that I need the financial support, to fund my training, or whatever, they’ve accepted me for the Irish team so that I have the ability to ride for them and that’s already enough.”
The arrangement makes sense for all concerned. The standard of riders otherwise available to Ireland isn’t good enough, so Séamus is not taking anyone’s place because there’s none to take.
The unlikely union may have happened more or less overnight, but for Séamus it’s been years in the making.
Kevin, a social worker, and Elena, a neurologist, used to run a brain injury rehabilitation clinic near their home in San Diego, California. They took clients skiing in Winter Park, Colorado, once a year and Séamus and his siblings, Stanislav (now 23) and Polina (24), tagged along. Though his brother and sister were quite accomplished themselves, the youngest showed innate ability.
After Kevin bought a BB in Big Bear in 2000, he could organise 10 skiing trips instead of one and Séamus began seeing more of the mountain. He stepped on to a snowboard when he was four and “within a week he was doing the ‘falling leaf’ down the black diamond”.
By the age of five he was entering “nationals” and a chance encounter at Sunday River with the US coach first alerted his parents to his potential. Kevin, who had been planning retirement anyhow, “went full-time” with a six-year-old Séamus and Elena assumed the duties of the family business.
This meant spending a lot more time on the mountain, so dad and Séamus moved to Big Bear and by the time the latter was seven, they had relocated to Park City where there is a higher standard of training available.
He trained with the snowboard team for over two years, but in the meantime, Kevin had done reconnaissance in New Zealand, where he and Elena plan to live. There he met Kiwi coach Sam Wilkinson. They joined forces when Séamus was 10 and these days he spends over three months in Wanaka on the south island, where he crams in nearly 50 per cent of his 200 days per annum on the mountain.
It’s some commitment, and the acknowledgment of that prompts Kevin to guard himself against accusations of indulging a vicarious thrill. “We’re in the brain injury business,” he stresses, “this is an extremely dangerous sport and if you’d asked us would we have liked him to have done this we would have said ‘no’. But it is what it is, he chose it, and he has that passion and it’s that passion that’s bringing him forward.”
In Wilkinson, they have a friend and mentor to channel Séamus’s desire. Together, they gradually refine his style and add tricks to his repertoire, like the “milestone” Backside 900 he nailed in the slopestyle in Livigno last month or the back-to-back 900s on the halfpipe for victory a week earlier in Laax. Such things can take a year’s practice or 80 perfect repetitions before they get an outing in competition. Naturally, Séamus has an education to think of, so home-schooling through the Calvert curriculum remains a big part of his daily routine. A quick glimpse at a few report cards suggests he’s as successful in front of a blackboard as he is on a snowboard.
“It works out great . . . this is my third year doing it and it seems to work, so it’s a great system.”
That’s a year-round commitment, too, sometimes seven days a week. “So far we’ve got away with it,” says Kevin. “He has to keep the grades up in order to continue the lifestyle. One injury and he could be finished for life and then where’s he going to be? He needs an education.”
Séamus steers clear of citing White as his idol. He does, however, have obvious admiration for Danny Davis’s “style” and Kevin Pearce’s hunger to “progress the sport”. Both have been seriously injured in recent years, so it’s understandable Séamus’s main ambition is not an Olympic gold, or to be number one, but to “stay safe” and “have fun”.
“If you’re not having fun it’s not worth it, you may as well just pack up. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of effort but over time you see that hard work pay off and that’s the real fun part about it. It’s putting in the time and learning new tricks and seeing it pay off down the road.
“Everything I do, I always just try to stay focused and have fun doing it. There’s nothing else like snowboarding, just hauling ass down the mountain into this huge jump. You’re terrified but it’s a huge adrenalin rush. I dunno, I don’t really see myself doing anything different.”