Quitting rugby a good Korea move
Former Leinster Academy wing Pat McMillan is going to the Winter Olympics
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