SIM­PLY ‘UN­REAL’

Serendip­i­tous turn of events some­how lets 16-year-old Eliot Grondin into the Olympics at the last mo­ment

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON sstin­son@post­media.com @scot­t_stin­son

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.

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