Just a few hours north of Sochi is the city of Maykop, where Seamus O’Connor’s maternal grandparents were born.
Ever since the Russian resort was awarded the 2014 Winter Games, it seemed fated he’d be part of it. O’Connor was nine when the announcement was made, but he was already a prodigious talent, dubbed ‘Famous Seamus’ by the snowboarding community across North America. The boy wonder from San Diego with the Irish name would be heading to his ancestors’ backyard to fulfil an Olympic dream.
It wasn’t a fanciful notion.
“I always liked going fast and I could see these snowboarders doing their jumps and tricks, flying through the air. I started when I was four. At that age, if my hands were cold, if I fell over on the slopes, I was miserable and just wanted to go home. But after a few tries, it started to go really well and I’ve never looked back.”
By the age of five, O’Connor was competing at a national level. His parents, Kevin and Elena, were told by an American coach that their son had an innate talent that should be encouraged. Big Bear Mountain, a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, became a second home. Soon, an upgrade in training facilities was required. So, at seven, with his family alongside him, O’Connor relocated to Park City, Utah. This was getting serious. “I was only a little kid but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I can do something with this’. I’d been successful at a regional level and then won nationals when I was nine. At that point, snowboarding changed from just being something recreational.”
At 13, he was signed to a pro contract by Nike. Shaun White, the flame-haired snowboarding superstar, signed his first pro deal at the same age. Luke Mitrani, another idol of O’Connor’s, was named in the US team at 12.
It’s a sport where prodigies thrive. But O’Connor wanted something more. Something different.
“I saw these guys in magazines when I was a kid and then I was competing against them. It was a lot to take in. It had been my goal for a while to turn pro at 13, like White had done – I was set on that. But I always felt I needed to go after it more and do something better.”
The Olympics would be better — the pinnacle for any athlete. But representing the US was never a realistic ambition – too much competition, too few places available.
The Russian federation came sniffing around but the decision was a relatively easy one. O’Connor’s grandparents were from Drogheda and Dublin. His father spent his formative years in that part of the world.
The link was indisputable. But, with Seamus, the connection to Ireland went a little deeper.
“My real name is Kieran. But my Dad’s favourite Irish uncle was Seamus Corbally and he’s always loved the name. He used to call people he liked ‘Seamus’, we had a cat called ‘Seamus’. My Mum told him, ‘You can’t call your son ‘Seamus’, so he picked Kieran. But then, when it came down to it, no one ever called me that and Seamus just stuck”.
Last year, many questioned whether snowboarding had lost its edge, that it had revelled in it’s bad-boy image for too long, that it had become boring.
In 2012, Shaun White, so revered for his uniqueness, his freshness on the slopes, was arrested for vandalism and public intoxication. No longer a rebel athlete, now just a cliché.
O’Connor admits the sport has changed, becoming more serious. “Now, snowboarders are a lot like other athletes. The mental side of things is very important. Like talking to sports psychologists to help you handle stress and a whole bunch of other factors that are in your life while you’re trying to work.”
There’s the relentless gym work, the five-hour stints on the slopes, the repetition of the tricks, the mastering of two disciplines, the grind of finding the ‘zone’, the frustration of a fall, the fragility of the entire process.
It’s a lot to take for a 16-year-old. O’Connor is an athlete first and teenager second. It’s a sacrifice he’s struggled with but accepted.
“I can go hang out with my friends another day but what I have here — my career — is something I need to take when I can. You need to seize an opportunity when it comes.”
The same logic applies to Sochi. O’Connor isn’t prepared to get caught up in the self-congratulatory pomp that’s normally applied to overachievers.
“A lot of people say that they’re happy to be there but I’m not going to relax. I’ve been training for years to get to this point. I’m going all out.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved