Ireland’s five-athlete team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang may have been its smallest since 2006 (just four in Sestriere) but this particularly young and inexperienced group did well in extremely testing conditions.
Double Olympian Seamus O’Connor (20), who had competed in both half-pipe and slopestyle snowboard in Sochi, did remarkably well to get back considering he ruptured his cruciate knee ligament just 18 months previous. To qualify he concentrated solely on half-pipe and finished 18th from a field of 29 in an exceptionally high-standard half-pipe competition where he was unlucky not to make the final after putting his hand down on the final trick in qualifying.
The rest of the team were all Olympic debutants and alpine skiers Patrick McMillan and Tess Arbez coped well with a series of particularly disruptive weather delays that badly disrupted their schedules. Arbez (20) improved her ranking by almost 20 places by finishing 46th of 78 skiers in the women’s slalom and made a similar jump in ranking in the Giant Slalom where she was 50th from a field of 79. McMillan (26) was only the second Irishman ever to compete in the Downhill – the blue riband speed event of every Winter Olympics. He finished 52nd and the Clareman did even better in the Super-G where he finished 48th from a field of 61 skiers.
Brendan ‘Bubba’ Newby (21) also made history as Ireland’s first ever competitor in Olympic half-pipe skiing (only introduced in Sochi 2014), Bubba made the qualification standard by making it into the top 30 in the world. After his first run Bubba was one place outside the qualification places for the final, Bubba fell on his second run where he finished 22nd overall.
Illness forced the team’s only cross-country skier Thomas Westgaard (22) to pull out of his final and best event – the marathon 50km – but he had already taken part in three others. And while his placing in the 15km Free race was his lowest placing it was by far his best performance as he finished 63rd inside 38 minutes in a field of 119 racers. That was a huge personal best and also the highest placing ever by an Irish cross-country skier in that event.
Team Ireland shared the same accommodation block in the athletes’ village as the huge Austrian team whose backroom, by coincidence, included Paul Schwarzacher-Joyce. Paul was Ireland’s first Olympic downhill skier (27th) in Nagano in 1998 where he also finished 15th in slalom and also competed in Salt Lake City in 2002. He now lives in Salzburg and is one of Austria’s fulltime slalom coaches but he visited the Irish team one afternoon and generously gave of his time and fond memories of competing for Ireland.