On the slippery slopes to Olympic glory

 Conor Lyne has taken two years out from his studies in engineering to concentrate on skiing. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

TWENTY-YEAR-OLD Conor Lyne is a man who seems at ease with his destiny. Despite his somewhat internationally mixed upbringing (born in England, brought up in the USA), there was never a shadow of a doubt as to what country he would represent if he got the opportunity.

He speaks with an accent that is a lot less Americanised than many of his fellow Irishmen, and he says himself that he wouldn’t consider himself “even a slight bit American”.

Conor’s father is from Brandon in Kerry and his mother is a Limerick woman from Hospital. When their employers — a Dutch dairy-industry company — opened a base in Utah, the Lyne family all moved to the Mormon state when Conor was just four years old.

It’s not a part of the USA that Irish ex-patriots have traditionally ended up in: “Culturally, it was different,” he says. “No-one really drinks — that type of thing. It’s very conservative and kind of closed off to the rest of the world. In many ways, it’s like a lot of places in Ireland; where people are just happy where they are and they don’t particularly want to go out exploring the world.”

Now that Conor is taking on the world with half of Ireland and a good chunk of Utah behind him, he acts like someone who takes his good fortune without hesitation. Behind his relaxed and smiling demeanour he embraces this life of a champion skier with a good-natured but unflinching ambition.

Conor has taken two years out from his studies in engineering to concentrate on skiing. His year revolves around training; following the cold weather — summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern hemisphere — in preparation for the various international events he has attended representing Ireland.

It means spending a lot of time away from his parents, but when asked if the solitude of a sporting life on the road is a problem, he smiles and shakes his head:

“I enjoy it way too much to even think about those kind of things. As well as me, my parents have sacrificed a lot for me to be here. Besides, I have all my family here in Ireland who support me too.”

Growing up in a place with 14 ski resorts within a two-hour drive, Conor started skiing at the age of five. Concentration and putting fear to one side are paramount in speed skiing events and the longer you leave it before starting the greater the innate survival-instinct fear that sets in. Skiers at Conor’s level in the giant slalom event regularly reach speeds in excess of 100km/hour.

“The other thing is that most skiers were probably a lot more reckless when they were younger. That’s why me and my brother got into the racing — because my parents were afraid that we’d do something stupid when we were out on our own skiing around. So they decided that it would be safer to put us in a team, so that we could learn how to ski properly. But from then on, we only got faster and faster!”

His mother, in particular, was always strict about ensuring that schoolwork came first; something which was an excellent motivator for his academic career: “If you didn’t get your grades, then you weren’t going skiing.”

As he moved into the business end of competitive skiing around the age of 14 (when he also chose skiing over his other sporting love of soccer), his Argentine coach encouraged him to declare for his country.

Conor accepts that his sport is a minority one and doesn’t seem to expect much in the way of funding and is grateful for what funding is there.

“They try to help out the best they can,” he shrugs. “I’ve been helped out with a couple of ski trips that they’ve wanted me to go on, like the Small Nations Cup in Serbia (in December). I also received the scholarship from the International Olympic Committee through the Irish Olympic Committee, which basically pays for my skiing for the entire year.”

I tell him of a story that a ski instructor once told me about his friend who won an Olympic medal for France in downhill skiing and who used to take a little sip of red wine before each event just to calm the nerves. Has he tried the French red wine approach to pre-race relaxation?

“For that guy, it could have worked… I wouldn’t do it personally, but different racers have different methods of calming down. My ‘alcohol’ would be listening to music or singing a song in the starting gate. Just to calm the nerves, relax yourself.”

Watch out for this particular flying Irishman on the starting gate at Sochi. If you listen carefully, you might even hear him singing.


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