Serendipitous turn of events somehow lets 16-year-old Eliot Grondin into the Olympics at the last moment
PYEONGCHANG — As Eliot Grondin took his final training run down the snowboard-cross course at Phoenix Snow Park, Shaun White was about to enter the halfpipe on the adjacent trail.
It was an interesting bit of symmetry: the Canadian rider took up snowboarding after he watched White win his first gold medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
Also: Grondin was four years old at the time.
Twelve years later, Grondin is at the Olympics, competing next to his idols, thanks in part to a little bit of serendipity. The Canadian snowboard team for Pyeongchang was officially named late last month, and Grondin, from Ste-Anne, Que., was not on it. Officials waited until the last moment to see if Canada could open up a fourth slot on the snowboard-cross team, but they ended with just three spots, filled by veterans Kevin Hill, Chris Robanske and Baptiste Brochu.
But as various countries filled out their snowboard rosters, a spot opened up — it’s unclear if that was due to injury or oversight — and Canada was next in line.
Suddenly, Grondin was standing in an airport in Germany, about to make a connecting flight, when he received a call on his cellphone. Kid, you are going to the Olympics. In, like, a week.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Grondin said on Wednesday. He was totally fine with not going — “I’m still young, you know?” — and now, boom, he was to be an Olympian.
“It’s unreal,” said Grondin, who at 16 is just three months shy of being the youngest member of Team Canada, a distinction held by his snowboard teammate, Elizabeth Hosking.
But while Grondin mostly talks of his Pyeongchang experience in a just-happy-tobe-here way, the other riders in snowboard cross are in Korea for more than just experience.
“I set goals for myself, and my goal is to be on that podium,” said Hill, 29.
A tall and lean rider who placed fifth in snowboard cross at Sochi 2014 and who has been on the podium before at the X-Games, Hill says the course at Phoenix Snow Park suits his abilities: it’s technically demanding, and not a track that simply allows heavier riders the benefit of gravity.
“The course is awesome,” said Hill, adding that the changes made since last year have improved it for him. “It’s better than what I thought, comparing it to the test event we had, I feel a lot better here and I feel like being light isn’t such a bad thing. It feels really good here.”
It’s not often you hear an athlete talk about being too damn skinny, but snowboard cross, which is a series of heats over a rolling course, demands both technical ability and raw speed.
“Being a lightweight, it’s hard to glide as fast as the heavy guys,” Hill said.
“It’s plain and simple. Physics, down the hill, you get 175 pounds against 200 pounds and it’s a tough one. You have to make up for it by making the moves.”
But this course, he hopes, demands just enough in a technical sense that if he makes those moves correctly, and has a more efficient ride, he can make up time that doesn’t come from having as much ballast as the others in his heat.
Rene Brunner, one of the Canadian snowboard-cross coaches, agrees that the course provides opportunities for his riders, with the seeding races scheduled for Thursday morning here.
“It’s wide open, it’s long, the features are bigger, so it takes a lot (of ability). So you have to make very good decisions as you go,” he said. It’s just point the board down and go, then.
“I think the race is going to get decided again at the very bottom of the track,” he said. There are multiple big jumps in the bottom section, and different places for the riders to land. The trick is to catch the right landings to maintain speed.
“It’s going to be a lot about you stay low, you go long, you make the right transitions, and you are going to go fast,” Brunner said.
Phoenix Park, nestled in Pyeongchang proper in the mountains east of Seoul, has already proven to be a great home for Team Canada. Half of the Canadian medals have come at this venue, with three in snowboard slopestyle and two in moguls. Hill says all that success has been encouraging, to a point.
“It’s good vibes, I watch all the events, I’m stoked for all the teammates, I’m stoked for all of Team Canada when they are killing it and getting medals, but it doesn’t really affect me all that much,” he says. “I’m just getting ready for the day, lowkey, positive vibes, and when the gate drops, go fast.”
For Grondin, the kid who wasn’t supposed to be here, it’s about having a good run, or good runs if it works out that way, and getting experience for the next Games in Beijing, which he was building toward being his first.
“I’m not really thinking about a medal,” he says. But that would be nice. “Yeah,” he laughs. “For sure.”
Eliot Grondin of Canada warms up ahead of the men’s snowboard crossseeding yesterday at the Phoenix Snow Park.