Thursday, January 14, 2010

Winter Olympics: Paul Griffin XC skier

From Irish Independent Thursday January 14 2010

IT may have brought the country slipping and sliding to a virtual standstill but Ireland's Big Chill of 2010 has, paradoxically, been absolutely no help to Paul Griffin.

That's ironic considering the world-class Irish rower has been in a Killarney gym for the past week, sweating his guts out for one final race that will help decide whether or not he qualifies, as a cross-country skier, for next month's Winter Olympics in Vancouver (February 12-28).

The big chill is actually more of a hindrance than a help to him.It is immaculately-groomed tracks the Fossa man needs for training, not random snow drifts up in the McGillacuddys.

The bizarre weather worldwide -- too hot before Christmas, too snowy now, both contributing to regular race cancellations -- has compounded the logistical problems he has encountered trying to get around the world to pick up Olympic qualifying points.

Griffin accepts that he's a bit of a novelty on the international (FIS) skiing circuit, that people see him as some sort of 'Paddy The Eagle' and he can't blame them.Rory Morrish, Ireland's only previous Winter Olympian at cross-country skiing (Turin 2006) once compared himself "to a Norwegian wanting to play hurling" for his native Cork.

Given Griffin's even shorter transition, he is more like a Scandinavian wanting to play in the All-Ireland hurling final after just 18 months practice!

What most of his competitors probably don't appreciate is that the 30-year-old is a two-time world championship medallist and double Olympian at rowing and one of the finest endurance athletes Ireland has ever produced.

His team-mates at the Athens and Beijing Olympics (where they were sixth and 10th respectively) regularly referred to Griffin as "the hardest man" in the lightweight four boat, with an insatiable appetite for training. It was through rowing that he first experienced skiing when then Irish coach Harald Jahrling brought his charges to St Moritz for a winter-training camp in 2005.

Aerobic, endurance fitness is the corner-stone of both sports, and cross-country skiers, particularly biathlon skiers who also shoot at targets, are some of the fittest athletes in world sport with resting heart rates of 30-40 beats per minute compared to the average Joe Soap's 70 bpm.

After the disappointment of failing to make the rowing finals in Beijing, Griffin decided to see just how far he could go in this alpine sport and some of his adventures already read like a Disney script. It took him two days to get home from his last event in Anchorage, Alaska on January 4, which was the US National Championships.

Just 1km into the 15km race he took a tumble and broke one of his skis.He only has two pairs, compared to the top pros who get hundreds to trial each season.For Olympic 'B' standard qualification you need to achieve an average of below 300 points in five official (FIS) races. This was Griffin's fifth so not finishing wasn't an option.

Hence he raced back up the hill that he'd just tumbled off at 40 mph, spotted a spectator with the same bindings (the locks that connect your boots to your skis) and borrowed one of his. Even with a pair of mis-matched skis -- he had to produce the broken one for the officials afterwards as equipment is very tightly regulated -- he crossed the line in the time he needed.

Yes he was last, in 143rd place, 16 minutes behind the winner. But if he'd been six seconds slower it wouldn't have been enough and 11 competitors didn't finish at all.Afterwards Griffin didn't even have time to check out the stranger whose kindness may yet get him to Vancouver.

"I actually came around past him twice more on the circuit!" Griffin explains, laughing at the latest of his many surreal experience that have included racing in Lapland and getting used to landscapes where moose replace sheep.

Similar random acts of kindness from complete strangers have been vital to Griffin pursuing his dream of joining the exclusive club who have competed for Ireland at both Summer and Winter Olympics. Only javelin thrower Terry McHugh and rower Pat McDonagh, in bobsleigh, have previously done it.

Morrish has been a great help, not least by hooking him up with Rolf Hagstrom, a former waxer for the Swedish national team who has become a huge ally and advisor.

Griffin's own international rowing connections have also proved invaluable.While competing at one race he met a former rower who owns a chain of hotels in Sweden who now gives him free board when he's over there training. And yet, though his result in Anchorage was enough to secure the 'B standard', there is a hitch in this snowy fairytale that could yet undo him.

The Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) can only send one athlete on the B standard and another skier currently has a better scoring average (270 points) than Griffin's 299.

That's PJ Barron, a Scot who declared for Ireland (through parentage) a year ago. Barron still trains and travels with the British Nordic Development Squad so compared to him Griffin is a lone wolf, with far less experience and support. The OCI have indicated that not just qualifying standard will influence their decision. Next weekend is the qualification deadline and the OCI will make their decision next Monday.

After the broken ski in Anchorage the Kerryman has decided to do one more race, in Bozeman, Montana, this weekend in a desperate last attempt to improve his 'best of five' average. Even if he doesn't get to Canada, Griffin's Olympic odysseys will not end here. He is still a world-class rower and hopes to be part of an Irish boat in London 2012 and then there's the next Winter Olympics in Russia in 2014.

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