Hurtling head-first into addiction

In February 2010, Seán Greenwood took a volunteering job at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

He and a friend hopped in a beat-up van and drove the 10 hours west from Calgary.

They slept in that van for two weeks, immersing themselves in an event that enraptured, entertained and indulged. It was here that Greenwood’s life changed. It was here he began his journey towards qualifying for Sochi.

“When I was volunteering at the sliding track, everything was so close. I could touch it. It’s an addictive atmosphere and you want to come back to that as much as possible.”

Greenwood had first tried skeleton in 2008 while studying at the University of Calgary. He came across a European race on television. He was desperate to try it.

The city had hosted the Winter Olympics 20 years before. The sliding track was just 10 minutes away. He signed up for a three-day skeleton school and was hooked.

“On the first day, the instructors put their feet in front of the sled. The light changes, the instructors move out of the way and your heart is throbbing.

“When you get to the bottom you can’t believe you’ve made it but you realise you’re addicted and have to go back to the top of the hill to do it all over again.”

Skeleton sees competitors hurtle head-first down a sliding track while perilously balanced on a toboggan that’s little bigger than a baking tray. Bizarrely, Ireland has skeleton pedigree.

At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Clifton Wrottesley came within four-tenths of a second of a first Irish Winter Olympic medal.

Though Wrottesley’s background is a kaleidoscope of aristocracy, he and Greenwood do have one thing in common outside of a high-octane winter sport: Galway.

Wrottesley spent his infancy in Abbeyknockmoy and while Greenwood was born and raised in Vancouver, his mother, Sibéal, is from Newcastle — a 10-minute drive from Galway city centre. She left for Canada in the early 1980s, as did two of her sisters, but was determined to never allow her heritage dissipate, particularly once her only child was born. Greenwood was brought to Ireland for the first time aged just four months and did a considerable amount of growing up on the west coast, spending countless summers in his grandmother’s thatched cottage. The romanticism didn’t end there. Back in Canada, with his mother desperate to continue his ‘education’, he was unwillingly herded into Irish dancing.

“My mum had to bribe me to go. My aunts, who live in the city, were a bunch of enablers. They tried to make sure I was sticking to it but I fought it all the time. It didn’t last very long!”

After his epiphany at the 2010 Winter Games, Greenwood decided to move to Whistler and concentrate on developing his craft. He trained at the Olympic track six times a week. He was in the gym five times a week. For two years. He began putting up decent times and reached out to the Irish Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, sending them copies of his results. In October 2012, he represented Ireland for the first time at a race in Utah.

Greenwood points to his Irish background as the reason for his relentless determination and drive. Every time he gets on a sled, it’s a mental and physical battle.

Last January, he reached a speed of 142km per hour at the Whistler Sliding Centre — the fastest course in the world, located two hours north of Vancouver. At the same venue in February 2010, hours before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, a Georgian luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, was killed when he lost control of his sled during a training run and slammed into a steel support at 144km per hour. Greenwood appreciates the risk involved but refuses to dwell on it.

“You try to mitigate the risks but there’s always a possibility of something like that happening. You want to make sure the fear is there but alongside the belief that you can conquer it and execute your plan. When you hunt speed, you need to let the sled go but not let go too much. It’s a super-fine line.”

Greenwood doesn’t have a coach. It’s one of the realities of doing all this on a budget.

He needed to travel to Sochi for a training camp in November. With flights and accommodation, a full-time coach was deemed an unnecessary luxury. “I think I’m the only one without a coach that competes in the World Cup. You’re going up against Russia, Germany and Canada and they’ll have six coaches to help them out with every conceivable aspect. But there’s an element of defiance to it. Like, ‘you don’t need all that stuff as long as you’ve got enough determination’.”

Somehow, the strategy has worked. Qualification has been, fittingly, fast and furious. Since November, Greenwood has competed in 10 races with his best seven results placing him 27th in FIBT rankings ahead of Sochi. The gold medallist from Vancouver 2010, Jon Montgomery, is ranked just six places higher. It’s been an incredible run.

“I look back and it’s so many small conversations I’ve had — people giving me enough of a chance and then just wanting it enough myself. It’s so difficult to believe and I haven’t put it into full perspective yet”.

Twelve years ago, Wrottesley almost made Irish sporting history. For a fleeting moment, an Irish winter athlete was famous.

Greenwood doesn’t care about headlines or attention. He cares about his own journey and the country he represents.

“I just want to be part of Ireland’s Olympic story. I want to show we can be there and overcome a lot of the challenges. Through the struggle, you learn a lot about yourself.

“It’s taken a lot of support to get to this level but it also takes inner drive. And the mixture between the two is what gets you there.”

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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