There’s a famously difficult move in freestyle skiing called a ‘cork’, a fact that particularly tickles Brendan Newby.
One of a family of five children, he grew up in Orem, south of Park City in Utah — a Mecca for snowboarders and trick skiers — but qualifies to compete for Ireland because he was born in Cork 21 years ago while his father Van spent two years teaching in UCC as a visiting economics professor.
By coincidence, the only other Irish ‘freestyle’ skier chasing Winter Olympic qualification in PyeongChang in February also has Cork roots.
John Brown, 22, lives north of Boston in New Hampshire but his mum is from Banteer. His dad’s mother is from near Bantry and the family moved back and lived in Schull for a year when he was four.
He returned to Banteer for a month every summer until he turned 15 and started to save all his money for skiing.
“So we’re a pair of Corkers!” chuckles Newby.
Both are ‘freestyle’ skiers but their looks, personalities, and sports are quite different.
Newby has shoulder-length blond hair and, though christened Brendan Conor is widely known as ‘Bubba.’
He skis the half-pipe, doing a series of flips and aerial tricks all the way down a massive ice tunnel whose walls are 22 feet tall.
Throw in the additional 15-17 feet he gets above its edges and he’s landing tricks from around 30 feet high so the slightest glitch can result in a bone-crunching wipeout.
Brown is dark-haired, shyer and skis ‘slopestyle’.
That’s a combination of spinning over obstacles and launching himself almost 30 feet in the air off giant snow-ramps to somersault and twist repeatedly before landing up to 80 metres away.
Yet when they click into a pair of skis and chase that coveted ‘big air’ they become ski brothers and most truly alive.
Freestylers — snowboarders or skiers — may have the look and fist-pumping antics of adrenalin addicts but their image belies stellar levels of technique and dedication.
Bubba speaks in a slow drawl and throws words like ‘stoked’ and ‘dude’ into every other sentence but don’t mistake him for any class of a slacker.
Brown might look like a disenfranchised teenager, complete with baggy clothing and facial fluff but he already partly makes a living starring in ski videos and everything he uses in competition — from his skis (Vogel) to goggles (Aura) and boot bag (Kulkea) — is sponsored.
They are among a dozen Irish athletes currently
chasing Winter Olympics qualification who range from the children of Irish emigrants to homegrown talents like Clareman Pat McMillan (from Ogonelloe) and Glenageary’s Conor Comerford.
Only one — snowboarder Seamus O’Connor — has ever qualified before and PyeongChang is particularly dear to Newby and Brown because their events only joined the Olympic programme in Sochi 2014.
Both have been skiing since they were infants and are good enough to compete in the
premier league of snowsport — the World Cup circuit.
They’re like alpine gymnasts and ninjas but the heights they fly, and the surface they land on, makes their sports particularly dangerous.
“Half-pipe is absolutely terrifying, I hated it growing up because it’s so scary,” says Newby, whose other main obsession is his dog Koda. “As I got older I started liking it better and now I actually like being scared!
“I’ve blown both of my shoulders out, had surgery on my right and separated the left a couple of times,” he says nonchalantly.
His worst injury touches on a hot topic in all sports right now — a really bad concussion. “I was wearing a helmet but was not myself for a full year after,” he says, admitting “there’s still things I can’t do as well as before. I’ve got to read pages multiple times to take stuff in.”
Attitudes to safety have radically improved and, as a coach himself, he’s very alert now to the dangers.
“It used to be like ‘hit your head? Take five minutes and come back’ but now that’s changed. If I see one of my athletes hit their heads I’ll pull them out instantly and send them to the doctor.”
Brown’s mum can’t even watch him compete and a small scar on his left cheekbone explains why.
“I broke my face!” he laughs. “Yeah, an orbital fracture when I was 14 or 15. I was riding a rail and slipped out and hit my face on it.”
In La Rosiere (France) last March he was recording for a ski movie when a trick went wrong, resulting in a torn cruciate and his first major surgery.
Yet he has returned well this season, including two top 25 finishes in World Cups to date. “To get this far you have to not hurt yourself a lot, and to do that you’ve just got to master one trick at a time,” Brown stresses.
“At this point most of my new tricks are a variation of one I can already land and you add difficulty with twists and grabs,” he explains of when skiers literally grab different parts of the skis while rotating.
Funding their sport is a huge challenge because of the travel involved.
Skiing’s World Cup circuit follows the snow globally so they started, last summer, in New Zealand and are now zipping around America and Europe, which is why grant-aid from the Olympic Council of Ireland helps.
Brown is mostly based in Park City where he trains with the top Americans but he returns to New Hampshire every summer to work.
His dad was a carpenter who now buys and sells cars and he funds his sport by fixing and re-selling rally cars, usually Subarus.
Newby works and trains at the Utah Olympic Park where they’ve got a pool and giant airbags to help learn new tricks but he’s also over and back to Colorado because it has America’s best half-pipe and many of the world’s best exponents.
“I work two jobs and still couldn’t do this without my parents,” he says.
“I work in a ski-shop, tuning and mounting skis. Then I train from 9 to 3 and later I coach kids because we have night skiing under floodlights.
"I’m not out there just throwing myself around,” he stresses. “Yes, there’s a ton of adrenaline and the feeling you get when you throw a new trick and land it is insane!
“But I’m not there to do new stuff just for fun. I’m there to push my skiing to the next level.”
Olympic qualification is a complicated thing, based on accumulating points as well as continental quotas. Right now they’re both quite close to the A standard (top 30) and have plenty more competitions still before the rankings are finalised in late January.
Bubba’s best move on the half-pipe is a ‘double Cork 900’. On the slope Brown’s is a “double Cork 1260 — two flips and three and a half spins with three different grabs.”
If they get to perform them in South Korea in the green of Ireland, then those ‘corks’ will have an extra special meaning.
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