From Banbridge town to Pyeongchang county for the Winter Olympics
WEATHER so cold that even snow disappears. Coughing up blood. Plans to roller-ski around the streets of Belfast and Dublin.
The Winter Olympics and those involved in them are different.
Take Dominic McAleenan, Ireland’s team leader at the winter sports extravaganza which started yesterday (Sunday) in South Korea.
His journey to PyeongChang progressed from Banbridge to East Anglia to Norway and Sweden, where the 48-year-old now lives.
Yet even he has been stunned by the low temperatures in Korea, especially the wind chill.
“It’s bitterly cold. I’ve lived in Sweden for more than 20 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this.
“It’s minus 19 or 20 at night, then not getting above minus 10 during the day. But it’s the wind, it’s been windy all the time. When you’ve been out skiing you can’t feel your jaw at the end.”
You’d think that would at least allow for the basic elements required for winter sports, but not so: “Most of it is man-made snow – there was some snow the other day but it all evaporated, it’s very strange actually. It’s been very sunny but you still don’t expect snow to evaporate when it’s nowhere near zero, but it does, I’ve seen it.
“It’s tough on the athletes. Some of the Swedish athletes said they’d been coughing up blood because of the damage it was doing to their airways.”
McAleenan works most closely with cross-country skier Thomas Westgard, who isn’t as troubled by the Korean climate:
“His mum is from Galway but he was born in Norway. He’s from north of Trondheim, on the coast, so he’s used to extreme weather.
“He’s a top 50 Norwegian skier, came third in the Austrian national championships recently, which was great.”
Norway is the country that prompted the teenage McAleenan’s love of skiing: “I went to Norway in 1986 with the Peace People, then I moved there for a year after my ‘A’ levels.
“Later I went to the University of East Anglia and studied Scandinavian languages, history, and literature; a strange degree, but I’ve never been out of work.
“I got a scholarship to the University of Oslo, was doing a post-grad in the effect of the Nazification of the Norwegian education system during the Second World War.
“I lived in Lillehammer [Norway] when the [Winter] Olympics were there in ’94.
“I had met my [Swedish] wife [Pia] in my last year at university and she lived about four hours from me, so I was going back and forward.
“I got one of those letters to say ‘This is not working, you’re going to have to move here’ – so I moved [to Sweden].”
Skiing was only a hobby for him until less than a decade ago: “There’s a big 90km race in Sweden every year, I did it first in 2010 when I’d just turned 40, a sort of mid-life crisis. Then I started roller-skiing in summer.
“I soon realised that I was the only Irishman in the race. I emailed the Snowsports Association of Ireland, asking for an Irish suit for the race. They asked about my times and if I wanted to go to the World Championships.
“I told them I was 45 but they said ‘it doesn’t matter’. So I went to the [Nordic Ski] World Championships in 2015, in Falun in Sweden.
“I did a sprint race, 1.5km, which sounds short - but it was the worst race of my life, I really thought I was dead at the end of it.”
Perhaps that exhaustion partly explains his move ‘upstairs’: “After that, the [Ireland] team captain Rory Morrish moved more towards biathlon and asked me to take over the captaincy.
“So I captained the team that went to Lahti in Finland last year. That was the first time Thomas competed for Ireland.
“He’s become the first Irish skier to compete in all the World Cup races. He qualified for the Olympics way ahead of schedule. We’ve now got a team of five ‘A’ athletes.”
Alongside Westgard, there are Alpine skiers Patrick McMillan, born in Letterkenny but brought up in Clare, and Tess Arbez, who has a Dublin-born mother.
Yesterday’s flag-bearer was half-pipe snowboarder Seamus O’Connor, born in the USA but with Irish grand-parentage, and the team of five is completed by Brendan ‘Bubba’ Newby, born in Cork but brought up in Utah.
McMillan at 26 is the eldest, the others only in their early 20s, so McAleenan is a father figure to them:
“It’s basically dealing with all the officialdom, registering the athletes, handling things if they do something wrong during a race.”
He literally holds hands with Westgard, as he explains: “I help Thomas specifically with picking his skis. He arrives at a race with 10 to 15 pairs of skis - skis for cold and warm weather, for new snow, coarse snow, everything in between, it’s a sliding scale [no pun intended].
“What you do is climb up to the top of the hill, then the two of you slide down the hill again, holding hands, then let go and see who slides the longest. It’s just about getting the pair of skis that are gliding the best for that particular day.
“We have got fantastic support from Sweden, they wax his skis, which is worth gold. I contacted their captain and they could have told me where to go, but they’ve been phenomenal. Great Britain have co-operation with Norway.”
Although he came late to competition himself, McAleenan is keen to get youngsters participating:
“The main thing for me is to try to get more young people involved, especially females. We have a problem getting girls involved. I’m trying to get girls involved. Ireland has never had a female cross-county Olympian, or in the World Championships either. There’s a glass ceiling to be broken there.”
Let’s hope it’s only made of ice…
In the absence (mostly) of snow and ice in Ireland, McAleenan is creative about attracting attention for winter sports:
“Four of us, including myself and Thomas, did roller ski the Galway Marathon in October. It was great they let us do it, but it’s four laps of the course.
“We’d really be looking for a one-lap marathon, because we don’t want to be disturbing runners.
“My intention is to try with both the Belfast and Dublin marathons. I would love to be able to show Thomas doing cross-country skiing; even though it’s on wheels it’s the same technique.
“Thomas did it in 2hrs 05/6, I did it in 2.37. The course was a bit rough, every vibration was going right through you.”
The real tests have started now, though - even if it’s on artificial snow.