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Dublin: 5°C Friday 5 March 2021

'After the Olympics it felt like I was dropped & there was no way forward, no plan'

Olympic skier Conor Lyne on lack of funding, lack of sponsorship & the relentless struggle of keeping it all together.

IT HAD BEEN a brutal and unforgiving first day.

Approaching the final few gates of his Giant Slalom at Vail/Beaver Creek in Colorado, Conor Lyne got a little complacent and lost control. He was thrown into the air, bounced across the slopes and slammed into the barriers.

Source: Conor Lyne/YouTube

It was painful. The CT scan showed up a severe contusion in his lower back and the 21 year-old missed the GS final because of the injury. But, he pushed through the pain and competed in the Slalom event two days later. With gritted teeth, he navigated the treacherous terrain and survived.

“It was the toughest race I have ever had, even tougher than in Sochi (at the Winter Olympics last year). They injected the slope multiple times so it was like sheet ice, impossible to stand on. The first run was very difficult – even the top guys were struggling to make it down and about a third of the top 30 didn’t finish. I made it down, with a lot of mistakes and I was furious with myself, to be honest. I decided to attack a lot more on my second run and I skied a lot better. I still had a lot of mistakes, but I came down and finished 41st, which wasn’t bad considering the lack of training I’d had and the condition of my back.”

The struggle was a perfect metaphor. Since Sochi (where he was the Irish flag-bearer), Lyne hadn’t done much skiing. He had barely even managed to compete at the Olympics after injuring his shoulder on the eve of the Games, sustaining a pressure fracture at the tip of his humerus. Yet, digging deep, he competed in the Slalom final and finished 40th – a remarkable achievement. Yet the injury hampered him for the remainder of 2014, as did something else.

“After the Olympic campaign, funds were completely exhausted, and there was no way I could possibly continue the season. I actually stayed in Ireland after the Olympics and worked for the summer. It was quite amazing. After all the hype before the Olympics, there was nothing for us afterwards. There were no press inquiries or sponsor inquiries, which we had all hoped for.”

Sochi Olympics Alpine Skiing Men Lyne pictured after his Slalom run at the Sochi Olympics last February. Source: Gero Breloer/AP/Press Association Images

A few months after hoisting the tri-colour inside Sochi’s Olympic Stadium and going toe-for-toe with the best skiers in the world, Lyne was working in a bookmakers in Dublin. In various corners of the world the skiing season continued and he was forced to watch from afar.

Born in Reading to Irish parents, Lyne moved to the US as a child and has been based in Logan, Utah ever since. But he speaks with a thick Kerry accent – a result of endless summers spent there with a multitude of cousins. He calls Ireland home. But though he hoped the attention garnered by the Olympics would kick-start a renewed interest in winter sports here, he’s been frustrated at how quickly it’s been forgotten. And, like any unfashionable and niche sport, the financial burden falls heavily on his and his family’s shoulders.

“Funding has always been a problem for everyone who skis for Ireland. The last two years cost $65,000. Luckily, just under half of that was covered by my Olympic Scholarship from the IOC but the remainder still fell on myself and my family. Yes, I know its not a popular sport, but in order to reach the top – which a few of us are willing to try to get to – you have to put the resources and funding behind those athletes.”

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Lyne3 Despite damaging his back two days previously, Lyne finished 41st in the Slalom at last weekend's World Championships. Source: Conor Lyne via Facebook

“After the Olympics, it felt like I was dropped, and that there was no way forward, no plan for the next few years. I was helped by the SAI (Snowsports Association of Ireland) in purchasing my new gear for the season but even after that I could not afford to compete at all before Christmas. A good season, if you’re doing it on the cheap, can cost 25-30k.”

Lyne is an affable and easy-going young man – always positive, always smiling. But it’s clear he was wounded by the drop-off in interest post-Sochi. In the build-up to the Games, he was featured in numerous Irish newspapers and magazines, he popped into TV studios to try and push the profile of skiing. And then, as quickly as it started, it was over. The fleeting shelf-life of an Irish winter sports personality.

Conor Lyne Source: Ian McNicol/INPHO

“There is a few weeks of hype for most winter athletes (especially the amateurs) and then it’s back to the grind. It’s four years of work to get to the Olympics, not just one or two – something a lot of the sports associations and federations forget. If you invest in an athlete all year round, the results will be there. Going to school and having to work nights to pay for skiing leaves me little time to train to begin with. As an athlete, we shouldn’t have to worry about money. Why are the top guys there? They focus 100% on their sport, and there are no obstacles – just their own skill and commitment level.

Myself and Pat McMillan (who also competed at the Worlds in Colorado) are serious about becoming professional skiers for Ireland, but there has to be the support there to do so.”

Irish athletes enter the stadium during the opening ceremony Lyne with the Irish flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Source: ©INPHO/Ian NcNicol

Earlier this week – a day after competing at Worlds – Lyne was in an exam hall. ‘A very big reality check’, he says. Just over a year away from completing his degree in Business and Political Science at the University of Utah, he offers an interesting view on the dearth of sponsorship opportunities for Irish winter athletes.

“Companies are missing out on great opportunities. In terms of direct exposure, we could offer quite a bit to Irish businesses. We are constantly in Europe, traveling to several resorts and being exposed to thousands of people every single day. We have a lot to offer, and I think companies are just overlooking us, because we don’t have that much direct marketability in Ireland itself.”

Despite the setbacks and the roadblocks, Lyne remains focused on what’s next and is optimistic about the future.

“I missed competing full-time this season and it’s very hard sitting on the sideline due to lack of funding. But I, and a few other athletes, will be working hard this summer with the federation and hopefully numerous sponsors to bring a strong, professional Irish team to the slopes next winter.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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