Quit­ting rugby a good Korea move

For­mer Le­in­ster Academy wing Pat McMil­lan is go­ing to the Win­ter Olympics

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORTS - By Mark Gal­lagher

HAD his life gone down a dif­fer­ent course, Pat McMil­lan might be nurs­ing a few bruises to­day from the Aviva Sta­dium, rather than hav­ing to catch Ire­land’s first Novem­ber in­ter­na­tional on an in­ter­net stream, high up in the Aus­trian Alps.

But McMil­lan has taken a few un­usual turns in his sport­ing ca­reer which ex­plains how some­one born in Let­terkenny and who grew up in the hurl­ing hot­bed of east Clare is pre­par­ing for his sixth sea­son as a pro­fes­sional down­hill skier – a sea­son that will see him rep­re­sent his coun­try at next Fe­bru­ary’s Win­ter Olympics in South Korea.

His orig­i­nal dream, though, was to rep­re­sent Ire­land at rugby. When he was a boarder at King’s Hos­pi­tal school in Dublin, he showed enough prom­ise as a winger to se­cure a place at the Le­in­ster Academy, where Tadhg Fur­long was among his team-mates.

By 19, he was forced to ac­cept that the am­bi­tion of play­ing in the Six Na­tions was just a dis­tant dream. So, he looked for other av­enues to rep­re­sent his coun­try on the big stage and made what he ac­cepts now was ‘a pretty crazy de­ci­sion.’

His pre­vi­ous ski­ing ex­pe­ri­ence had been con­fined to fam­ily hol­i­days. But he had a knack for it and with the sup­port of his fam­ily, he took his first un­cer­tain steps to be­com­ing an Alpine down­hill skier by train­ing at the Ben­nie Raich Cen­tre in Pitz­tal.

‘It seems a pretty crazy de­ci­sion, but around 2011, rugby wasn’t go­ing the way I wanted. And I still wanted to rep­re­sent Ire­land at the high­est level. So I thought about what other sport I was good at. I was pretty good at ski­ing, so I thought I’d give it a shot,’ McMil­lan ex­plains now mat­ter-of-factly.

His first two sea­sons on the world cup cir­cuit were tough. Very tough. And lonely. There was lit­tle glam­our in the early days. Out­side of the ski schoo, he knew vir­tu­ally no­body. Each week, he packed all his equip­ment into a car and drove six or seven hours to a race, some­where in France. Or Italy. Or Ger­many.

‘I was go­ing to the races by my­self. I had to make my own way, drive seven or eight hours with all my skis in the back. Try to find my­self a ho­tel. I would get there at six in the evening and I would have to go to the team meet­ings my­self, where the bibs and course in­for­ma­tion is given out.

‘Nor­mally, ath­letes don’t go there, it is for team lead­ers. But I was on my own, so had to go. Then, I would wax and sharpen my skis my­self be­fore go­ing to bed at 11 and get­ting up to race the next morn­ing. That’s not how a pro­fes­sional team works. But I don’t re­gret it, it was my way of get­ting into the sport. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now.’

He’s now in the top 300 down­hill skiers in the world and can be­gin the world cup sea­son later this month, safe in the knowl­edge that he’s al­ready go­ing to Pyeongchang for next year’s Olympics. Af­ter two sea­sons of plough­ing a lone fur­row, McMil­lan met Hans Frick, an Aus­trian coach, through a friend. He is now part of a team of four skiers Frick looks af­ter on the cir­cuit.

‘I’m on a team where I am work­ing with my own coach. I have worked per­son­ally with Hans over the past three and a half years, and you need that to im­prove. You need some­one that is to­tally fo­cused on you. And he knows your body in­side out.

‘A friend of mine put me in touch with Hans. He had seen me race and al­ways tells me that I had no skills back then. But he could see the fight in me. That’s one of the things I brought from rugby, the fight and strength. Ev­ery­thing else I had to learn,’ McMil­lan ex­plains.

‘Ski­ing is not about fight­ing all the time, it is about work­ing with the moun­tain, feel­ing the moun­tain. But some­times, you do have to fight, too.’

McMil­lan has sac­ri­ficed a lot in the past five years. Be­tween train­ing and com­pet­ing, he spends nearly 11 months of the year away from Ire­land. His phys­i­cal train­ing pro­gramme for this year started in the first week of June even though the first event isn’t till next week­end.

And it’s an ex­pen­sive sport. It costs McMil­lan around €80,000 a year to com­pete on the World Cup cir­cuit. And that is be­ing fru­gal and cut­ting as much cost as he can.

‘They reckon you have to bud­get around €100,000 for a world cup ath­lete in a sea­son,’ McMil­lan ex­plains. ‘I’m very lucky. I have sup­port from the OCI (Olympic Coun­cil of Ire­land) and sup­port from the Ir­ish [Snows­port] Fed­er­a­tion. But I still have a short­fall of be­tween €40-50,000 to make up.

‘It is not a cheap sport,’ he says, with un­der­state­ment. ‘There’s no way around that. I could spend €40,000 a year but I would only be com­pet­ing in half the events and I would never get to the level I need.

‘Thank­fully, my par­ents help me and I get a lot of skis from Head, my sup­pli­ers. But the whole sum­mer can be spent look­ing for spon­sors, which is very dif­fi­cult be­cause it is a niche sport. I hope with the Olympics com­ing up there might be a bit of hype and I will get seen more. A good re­sult at the Olympics will bring more spon­sors.’

His mother may be as­sist­ing with the ex­pense but she can’t bring her­self to watch her son in ac­tion be­cause of the fear of in­jury. Even when he com­peted in his maiden world cham­pi­onships in Colorado back in 2015, she had to de­pend on texts.

‘My mum has stopped watch­ing me ski. She is too scared. They don’t al­ways show the events on tele­vi­sion over here, but you can get the live stream­ing on the web­site, If they show I had a DNF (Did Not Fin­ish), she gets wor­ried.

‘She was watch­ing the live stream of the world cham­pi­onship, and she just thought it was too much for her, so she wouldn’t watch it any­more. But who knows? Maybe she will watch the Olympics.’

In­juries are part of down­hill ski­ing – his worst so far has been a rup­tured clav­i­cle af­ter crash­ing at more than 100km/h dur­ing one world cup race in Aus­tria. It was the same on a rugby field but on the wing he was never ac­cel­er­at­ing down an Alpine slope at 120km/h.

With each pass­ing sea­son, McMil­lan be­comes a lit­tle less cau­tious on the slopes. He re­mem­bers stand­ing at the top of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, one of the high­est points in Ger­many, be­fore an early world cup race and feel­ing the but­ter­flies swirling around his stom­ach.

‘There’s a pretty steep slope there, it’s al­most 2000m up, and the first time you are at the top look­ing down, it’s pretty scary. There’s a big jump and you have ac­cel­er­ated to 120 km/h within a cou­ple of sec­onds. ‘But once you have done it the first time, you start think­ing I have to do it bet­ter. That’s the way it is, you be­come used to it and you get less cau­tious. And we race on the same cour­ses ev­ery year, some­times twice a year so you get to know more about the slope.’

It is why skiers tend to peak in their mid-30s. McMil­lan turned 26 last week, so time is on his side.

‘Down­hill ski­ing is all about ex­pe­ri­ence. The best skiers are 35, 36. It is not the sort of sport where you are win­ning a race at 19. It is all about get­ting more ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom.

‘I plan to race and ski un­til I can’t do it any­more. The way sports sci­ence is go­ing, 38 or 39 may soon be­come the peak of this sport, or even com­pet­ing into your 40s may soon be­come a re­al­ity.’

Com­pet­ing into his 40s at the high­est level? That’s some­thing that would have never been pos­si­ble on a rugby field.

Ski­ing is not about fight­ing all the time, it is work­ing with the moun­tain

DOWN­HILL FAST: Pat McMil­lan is Ire­land’s top Alpine ski­ier

SPEED: McMil­lan can get up to speeds of 120 kilo­me­tres per hour on the slopes

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