As North Vancouver native Sean Greenwood prepares for his first Olympic skeleton run at Sochi’s Sanki Sliding Center on Friday, he’ll take a brief moment and glance at the tricolour on his suit. The flag of the country that made the dream possible: Ireland. It’s been quite a journey.
In 2008, the Collingwood School graduate was studying for an economics degree at the University of Calgary. Lying on his couch one day, dutifully rehabbing yet another rugby-inflicted shoulder injury, he came across a skeleton race on TV. He was in awe. He had to try it.
The Olympic sliding track was 10 minutes from the campus. It was a baptism of fire but he was hooked immediately.
“My shoulders were hanging off either side of the sled by about four inches so instead of the bumpers hitting the wall, I was. After every run I took, I had to take three or four days off because I was so black and blue.”
Greenwood enjoyed the adrenalin rush but the newfound, high-octane activity remained a sporadic pastime. All that changed in February 2010. A friend bought a brown, 1983 Chevy van with bullhorns on the grill and a disco ball in the back. He and Greenwood drove from Calgary to Whistler. They slept in that van for two weeks as they volunteered at the Winter Games. Greenwood had an epiphany. It was here that his own Olympic journey began.
“It was the best two weeks of my life. I was right there — so close I could touch it. Everyone was so proud to represent their country and so motivated to better themselves at their sport. It was an addictive atmosphere. I buckled down and got a new sled, got a job where I could work during the day and slide at night and trained really hard. It was, basically, all down to Vancouver.”
Greenwood relocated to Whistler shortly after and began a relentless skeleton schedule. Six times a week on the track, five times a week in the gym. The slog lasted two years but he began to tally some impressive run times.
Intrigued, he pondered Olympic qualification. But not with the Canadian team. Tapping into a proud family background, he sent copies of his results to the Irish Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association. They were impressed. By October 2012, he was competing in the North American Cup wearing an Irish suit.
Greenwood’s mother Sibéal, a fine arts teacher at Surrey’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University, was born and raised in Galway, on Ireland’s west coast, before she immigrated to Canada in the early 1980s along with two of her sisters. Greenwood did a considerable amount of growing up in his ancestral home, spending countless summers in his grandmother’s thatched cottage.
He blames his Irish DNA for the inner drive, that clichéd fighting spirit. Throughout qualifying, he didn’t have a coach — it was a luxury he couldn’t afford. He took out a loan, organized fundraising events, sold T-shirts on his website — all to make Sochi a possibility. Now that he’s there, he wears his independence as a badge of honour.
“There’s an element of defiance to it. Like, ‘You don’t need a coach as long as you’ve got enough determination.’”
Bizarrely, Ireland has skeleton pedigree. In Salt Lake City 12 years ago, an aristocrat called Clifton Wrottesley came within 0.4 of a second of claiming the country’s first Winter Olympic medal.
Similarly, Greenwood doesn’t just want to make up the numbers in Sochi. Ranked 29th in the world and with some impressive training runs already under his belt since arriving, he wants to make a statement.
“I’m one to engage and better myself. I want to prove that I can compete and show Ireland can be there and do this and overcome a lot of the challenges. For me, there’s only one way and that’s going right after it.”