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.
Irish Team Schedule (Subject to Change)
Men's Downhill Jeongseon Alpine Centre 11:00-13:05
15 km Skiathlon Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre 15:15-17:10
Women's Giant Slalom Yongpyong Alpine Centre 10:15-11:55 & 13:45-15:35
Men’s Individual Sprint Classic Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre 20:00-22:00
Men's Halfpipe Qualifications Pheonix Snow Park 13:00-14:50
Men's Alpine CombinedJeongseon Alpine Centre11:30-13:10
Women's Slalom Yongpyong Alpine Centre 10:15-11:50 & 13:45-15:25
Men's Halfpipe Finals Pheonix Snow Park 10:30-12:10
Men's Super-G Jeongseon Alpine Centre 11:00-13:10
Men's 15 km Free Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre 15:00-16:50
Men's Ski Halfpipe Qualifications Pheonix Snow Park 13:00-14:45
Men’s Ski Halfpipe Finals Pheonix Snow Park 11:30-13:00
Men's 50 km Mass Start Classic Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre14:00-17:05
Seamus O Connor, Bubba Newby and Pat McMillan take to the course to loosen out before their official training sessions start in PyeongChang.
Seamus O Connor, Pat McMillan and Bubba Newby
Stephen Martin, Chef de Mission with Physio Sarah Jane McDonnell and Seamus O Connor's Manager, Kevin O Connor, checking out the training facilities at Phoenix Snow Park
Sarah Jane McDonnell, Stephen Martin, Kevin O'Connor
Alpine Skiers Tess Arbez and Patrick McMillian, Cross Country Skier, Thomas Westgard, Half Pipe Skier, Bubba Newby and Snowboarder Seamus O’Connor and their support personnel have left for PyeongChang this morning, we would like to wish them all the very best from all at OCI!
Monday, 29th January 2018: Alpine Skiers Tess Arbez and Patrick McMillian, Cross Country Skier, Thomas Westgard, Half Pipe Skier, Bubba Newby and Snowboarder Seamus O’Connor were today confirmed by the Olympic Council of Ireland (the “OCI”) as the five athletes who have qualified to represent Ireland at the Winter Olympic Games being held in PyeongChang, South Korea from the 9th to 25th February.
Team Ireland, who were gathered in Dublin today for a workshop, held jointly by the OCI and Sport Ireland were met by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who congratulated them on the achievement of being selected to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games.
The athletes who were presented with their Team Ireland competition kit today, were also briefed on all aspects of what it is like to compete at an Olympic Games; athletes completed a medical check, an anti-doping briefing, media training and were taken through the Olympic Participation Agreement that the International Olympic Committee require all athletes to sign to compete at the Games.
The Team will fly out to PyeongChang tomorrow morning, allowing them a full week to prepare, train and acclimatise to conditions ahead of the opening ceremony on the 9th February. For each of these athletes, reaching the Winter Olympics is the culmination of an arduous four-year campaign.
On the 24th of January, the International Ski Federation published the Olympic Qualification for each of the snow sport disciplines based on the world ranking list for each discipline. The athletes who qualified are French born Tess Arbez (Alpine Skier- Slalom and Giant Slalom) who represented Ireland at the 2017 Alpine World Championships; Patrick McMillian (Alpine Combined, Super-G & Downhill) born in Letterkenny and currently living and training in Austria, Switzerland, he has represented Ireland at the 2015 and 2017 Alpine World Championships; Thomas Westgard (Cross Country Ski) Norwegian born, who represented Ireland at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Championships; Bubba Newby (Free Ski - Half-Pipe) born in Ireland, but currently lives and trains in Utah, USA, finished 25th at the FIS World Championship in 2017 and Seamus O’Connor (Snowboarding - Half-Pipe) American born, he competed for Ireland at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D. said: “For Ireland to have five athletes taking part in the 2018 Winter Olympics is a great achievement. Competing in your chosen field at an Olympic Games is the ultimate goal for any athlete; getting this far is a personal triumph for each sportsperson. Tess, Patrick, Thomas, Bubba and Seamus have shown great dedication, tenacity and a lot of talent to qualify for the Games and on behalf of all of us in Ireland, I wish them the very best of luck as they take on the world’s best snow sport athletes in PyeongChang in the coming weeks.”
President of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Sarah Keane said: “I am delighted that Ireland has five athletes representing and competing for Ireland at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang. That every member of Team Ireland has qualified for the first time by achieving the “A” qualification standard is testament to their talent and dedication as well as the hard work and support provided by Snow Sports Ireland, its members and volunteers. I want to thank the athletes, their families and Snow Sports Ireland for their commitment and contribution to the Irish Olympic Movement. On behalf of all of us involved with the OCI, we wish Bubba, Patrick, Tess, Thomas and Seamus the very best of luck in PyeongChang, we hope they perform to the best of their ability and they enjoy their Olympic experience.”
The OCI has supported three of Ireland’s Winter Olympian’s through the Olympic Scholarship run in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee. These athletes are Tess Arbez, Patrick McMillian and Seamus O’Connor. Each of the scholarship students received grants of €17,000, plus an additional €4,700 to assist with transport costs to Olympic qualification competitions. In addition, the OCI has facilitated access for the Winter Olympic hopefuls to the Sport Ireland Institute facilities that include sport science and medical advice as well as athlete lifestyle services.
WORLD champions Mark O'Donovan and Shane O'Driscoll have made the decision to sacrifice the possibility of winning more major international titles in the coming two years to try to fulfil their Olympic dream.
The Skibbereen duo swept the boards as a lightweight pair this year, winning World and European titles as well as all three World Cups but this is not an Olympic event.
Their ambition to compete in future Games, starting with Tokyo 2020, would have meant one of them, or both, having to oust Rio silver medallists Paul and Gary O'Donovan (no relation of Mark's) in the lightweight double so they have decided to change tack by becoming a heavyweight pair.
This will mean having to bulk up and, given their dominance in 2017, the likely sacrifice of future international medal in their current event. However, with limited weight categories in Olympic competition and Olympic success their ultimate goal they came to the decision in consultation with Rowing Ireland's High Performance Director Antonio Maurogiovanni and High Performance coach Dominic Casey.
The pair and the O'Donovan brothers are all headed to New Zealand in the New Year for three months of intensive training where they will have the challenging task of putting on the right type of weight.
Dominic Casey, incidentally, was nominated in two categories in International Rowing's (FISA) end of season awards, in both the 'Coach of the Year' and 'Distinguished Service to International Rowing' categories. He did not win but to be nominated for such prestigious awards was huge recognition of his coaching skills and his contribution to the success of Irish rowing on the world stage in recent years.
Elsewhere 2017 European silver medallist Denise Walsh is one of the 12 Irish Summer Olympic hopefuls to have been awarded a scholarship through the Olympic Solidarity scheme.
A brilliant year for Irish swimming was capped off with 13 new Irish senior records at the European Short Course Championships where Sligo's Mona McSharry and Bangor's Jordan Sloane made finals.
World junior champion McSharry, in her first senior championship, finished fifth in the 100m breaststroke final, just 0.2 seconds off a medal while Sloane, who set new Irish senior records at 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle in Copenhagen, finished sixth in the 200m final.
Conor Ferguson became the first Irishman to break 24 seconds in 50m backstroke and there were also new senior records from Danielle Hill (50m freestyle) andAlex Murphy (100m breaststroke) and three more in the relays.
Ireland has a particularly exciting team of young athletes in a diverse range of snow sports chasing qualification for PyeongChang right now.
They include two 'freestyle' skiers, snowboarder Seamus O'Connor (the only one to previously compete in a Winter Olympics), a cross-country skier and a group of alpine skiers who compete in everything from slalom to Super-G.
They're all racing the clock to collect points as the International Skiing Federation (FIS) will release its Olympic qualification lists on January 24th.
Several of them have been making their mark recently, particularly John Brown, the 22-year-old slopestyle skier with deep Cork roots. His mum is from Banteer, his father's family hail from near Bantry and John spent a year living in Schull when he was four before his parents settled in New Hampshire, north of Boston.
The World Cup is the Premier League of international snow sports and Browne was 22nd at the recent WC in Stubai in Austria from a field of over 70 competitors. He also made the top 25 in the previous WC in New Zealand in August, a great return considering he had reconstructive surgery on a cruciate knee ligament last March.
O'Connor is another returning to form after serious knee surgery which sees him now concentre on the half-pipe. He was recently 36th in the World Cup in Copper Mountain where Irish slopestyle skier Brendan 'Bubba' Newby came 13th and teenager Emma Ryan was 29th in the FIS Super-G competition.
Also battling to get to South Korea are Irish-Norwegian cross-country skier Thomas Westgard and alpine skiers Patrick McMillan (from Ogonelloe in Clare), DIT student Cormac Comerford, Kieran Norris and Tess Arbez.
Ireland also has some ice-sport athletes with similar ambitions; speed-skater siblings Ryan and Sean McAnuff and ex-sprinter Brendan Doyle who competes in skeleton.
Two-time champion Fionnuala McCormack made a record-breaking 15th appearance at the European Cross-Country championships in Slovakia this month but had to settle for 15th this time.
Her individual result was matched in the senior men's race by Clonmel's Sean Tobin and good runs from Ballina's Hugh Armstrong (19th) and another Clonmel runner Kevin Maunsell (24th) combined to help the Irish men finish fifth in the team competition, just two-points off fourth-placed France.
The best individual placing by any Irish athlete in the tough, wintery conditions came from Dundrum South Dublin's Sophie Murphy, one to watch in 2018 after she finished 10th in the women's junior (U20) 4000m race.
Athletics Ireland's High Performance Director Paul McNamara said: “There were some heroic performances out there starting with Sophie Murphy and then right through to the senior men who were magnificent. We have a strong tradition in cross country and for a country of our size we performed at a very high level.”
The Irish men's hockey team received a welcome funding boost, securing €84,000 (€21,000 per year) of Olympic Solidarity funding to help the men's team in their bid to make Tokyo 2020. They had to resort to crowd-funding to help them prepare in 2015-2016 when they became Ireland's first team of any kind to qualify for a Games since 1948 and the first hockey team since 1908.
They are currently ranked 10th in the World and, like their female counterparts, will compete in the World Cup in 2018. Veteran international Alan Sothern (30), one of their most capped players, works as a hockey coach in Alexandra College while doing distance studies at Setanta College.
He said: “I've been in the squad for over 10 years now and, for the majority of that, you're putting your other life on hold. People coming up to 30 in the past would probably have thought 'I have to step away (from hockey) now and deal with that' but this kind of support helps to take that kind of pressure off us.”
Irish net-minder Davy Harte was recently nominated for FIH World Goalkeeper of the Year for a third year in-a-row, a title he has won in the last two seasons.
The Irish senior women recently got their draw for next July's World Cup in London which has pitted them in a group with England, India and the USA.
Irish amateur boxing finished the year by winning more international medals. Joe Ward continues to be their star, winning his third European gold and another World silver this year but two to watch for the future are two teenagers, Belfast light flyweight Caitlin Fryers and Kildare light welterweight Katelynn Phelan.
Fryers (who also won silver at this year's European Youths) and Phelan both brought home bronze medals from the World Youth Championships in Guwahati, India in November where Fryers was only beaten on a split decision in her bid to win gold.
Ireland sent a team of just eight boxers to this event and Bray welterweight Shannon Reilly also reached the quarter-finals. In the past two months, a team of Irish male boxers brought home five medals (two gold, two silver and one bronze) from the Eindholven BoxCup, while Ireland's senior women brought home two golds and a silver from the BoxAm Elite Tournament in Tenerife in November.
In all Irish boxers have won 46 international medals in the past year, 29 of them at World and European tournaments.
A team of nine riders, with a real mix of youth and experience, brought home one medal and came agonisingly close to a few others at the European Track Championships in Berlin in October.
Lydia Boylan and Lydia Gurley won silver in the women's Madison, a 30km team relay event. This was particularly significant as the Madison is one of the new additions to the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020.
This was Gurley’s second international medal this year as she won bronze in the Scratch event at a World Cup back in February but it was a first at this level for Boylan.
Gurley was only pipped for a bronze in the Scratch race a day earlier and Tyrone rider Mark Potts, the national criterium champion, was also very unlucky not to medal in the Scratch race, finishing fourth and heartbreakingly seeing the scoreboard momentarily flash up that he'd won bronze only for it to be corrected.
Felix English's fifth in the men's Omnium was the other best Irish result from a very competitive team who are coached by former Madison World Champion David Muntaner in their track base in Majorca.
Another athlete receiving a Summer Olympic Solidarity grant is Jack Wooley, the Dublin taekwondo player who was agonisingly just one place short of qualifying for the Rio Olympics.
Since completing his Leaving Cert last summer, the 19-year-old from Jobstown is training fulltime and has been very busy competitively. His decision to move up from the non-Olympic weight category of 54kg – where he was a world number one – to 58kg sees him currently ranked 13th in the World but he jokes that he's “far less grumpy now.”
Finishing ninth and fifth in WTU Grand Prix in Russia and London saw Wooley qualify for the top 16 World Grand Prix Final in the Ivory Coast in November but he was unlucky to draw world number four Jesus Tortosa of Spain and did not make it to the quarter-finals.
Since being awarded the scholarship Jack has won Silver medal at the European Senior Championships in Sofia on 7th December 2017.
Wooley said the Olympic Solidarity grant is a huge boost to his hopes of making Tokyo 2020: “I have no income because I am not a carded athlete and don't apply for the dole because I'm not available for work. Taekwondo is not a talked about sport in Ireland so it's been quite difficult to get funding and this will help me 100 per cent.”