Winter Olympics: Debutant Westgaard 60th in skiathlon

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Norwegian-born skier Thomas Westgaard saw very little of his native country’s clean sweep of Olympic medals in Sunday’s grueling 15km + 15km skiathlon race, as he was too busy fighting to cross the finish line in the green of Ireland.

Simen Hegstad Krueger, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund took gold, silver and bronze in the red of Norway while Westgaard finished 60th in the colors of his mother’s country, over 16 minutes after the winner.

“It’s an incredible achievement. It was a good day for Norway for sure, and the favorite (Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo, who finished 10th) didn’t even come on the podium, and he’s Norwegian as well,” Westgaard told Reuters.

He said: “Despite not feeling 100 per cent I’m extremely proud to get my Olympic debut for Ireland. It’s a big honour. I dreamed about this since I was 10 so this was a big day for me.

His mother hails from County Galway on Ireland’s rugged, and mostly snow-free, west coast, and though her son was born in a land where cross-country skiing is a national obsession, he said he always wanted to wear the green.

“It was really windy so it was so important to be in a group to block the wind and unfortunately I wasn’t able to be in group for the last 15km so I had to struggle in my own battle.

“I have always had the dream of representing Team Ireland, ever since I was a child,” he said, his custom-made Oakley sunglasses in the green, white and orange colors of the Irish flag perched on his head.

“As a Norwegian-born, half-Irish guy I know how big this sport is in Norway, and I would love to spread it to Ireland,” he explained.

“The last 10km was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, it was just horrendous. But when you are able to finish in the Olympic spirit you just have to be proud.

Cross-Country Skiing – Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Men’s 15km + 15km Skiathlon – Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre – Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 11, 2018 – Thomas Maloney Westgaard of Ireland in action.The Irish, who have five athletes competing in Pyeongchang, have never won a medal at the Winter Games, although Clifton Wrottesley came close in Salt Lake City in 2002 when he came fourth in the men’s skeleton.

Westgaard, who was born in Norway but qualifies for Ireland through his mother – who was born in Galway – was pleased with his efforts on his Winter Olympics debut.

As for the current generation, Westgaard said he has been skiing as long as he can remember and that he decided at the age of 16 to take it seriously.

Only 25 Irish athletes have previously taken part in the Winter Olympics (19 men and six women). The first Irish team competed 20 years ago in Nagano, Japan.

He receives a small amount of support from the Snowsports Association of Ireland but is mostly dependent on his own resources and the generosity of sponsors – a far cry from the huge financial support available to elite Norwegian skiers.

This support enables them to train year-round in the best possible circumstances, but competition for places on the Norwegian national team is extremely tough, Westgaard says.

And it proved dramatic, with Krueger recovering from a fall to take gold, as Norway secured a cleansweep of the medals in temperatures of -9 degrees (c).

“The standard in Norway is extremely high. It’s massive. In the national championships there’s like 200 in a field, and I would say there are seven people in Norway that aren’t here at the Olympics that could get a medal here as well,” he said.

“In that third lap I just gave it everything. I was seeing stars. It was one of the most gruelling experiences I ever had.”

Despite the fact that his preparations have been interrupted by illness, Westgaard is still aiming to be an inspiration by putting on a good show in the remaining races.

The men’s super-G, which is McMillan’s other event, has now been moved to Friday, meaning the Killaloe skier must now race twice in 24 hours. However, he is not worried, saying: “This is very normal. In downhill we often have to wait for the weather.”

“I have always had this dream of putting a small winter sports nation like Ireland on the map, to spread interest in this sport,” he said.

All quotes delayed a minimum of 15 minutes. See here for a complete list of exchanges and delays.

The heavy gusts made a lottery of the men’s snowboard slopestyle final, which was won by 17-year-old American Redmond Gerard, the second youngest man to win Winter Olympic gold after famous Finnish ski jumper Toni Nieminen (16) in 1992.

Thomas Maloney Westgaard finished 60th in the Men's 15km +15km cross-country skiathlon at the Winter Olympics today.

The skier, whose mother hails from Dunmore in Galway, clocked a time of 1:32:34.2, 16 minutes and 14 seconds behind winner Simen Hegstad Krueger of his birth country Norway.

He said: “Eight months ago I probably didn’t think I was going to be able to snowboard at this level ever again. I’ve been stuck in the contest scene or on a death bed so this feels like a win.”

Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund completed a podium sweep for the Norwegians.

A brilliant first run saw Irish snowboarder Seamus O’Connor within touching distance of qualifying for the half-pipe final at this morning’s Winter Olympics qualifying session in PyeongChang.

Westgaard found his Winter Olympic debut harder than he had ever imagined but was still proud to finish 60th in the gruelling biathlon event, where skiers race in the classical style for the first 15km and then switch skis and ski freestyle for the second half.

The skiathlon, in which skiers change styles and skis halfway, provided one of the day’s standout stories as it was won by a man who fell and broke one of his poles on the very first corner.

"Despite that I didn't feel 100 percent I'm extremely proud to get my Olympic debut for Ireland. It's a big honour," said Westgaard.

Westgaard was 60th, in one hour and 32 minutes, in the particularly tough 30km skiathlon, which eight men didn’t even finish due to the hilly course, high winds and -13 degree temperatures.

"I dreamed about this since I was 10 so this was a big day for me,"

Ireland’s Thomas Westgaard described his Winter Olympic debut yesterday as “horrendous”, but he still got a rousing ovation from the PyeongChang crowd for being gutsy enough to complete it.

"The last 10k was like nothing I've ever experienced before, it was just horrendous," he said. "But when you are able to finish in the Olympic spirit you just have to be proud.

Her grandfather Frances Neerman was born in Carlow and grew up in Dublin after his father Auguste came to Ireland from Belgium in the 1920s to help set up the Carlow Sugar Factory.

"It was really windy so it was so important to be in a group to block the wind and unfortunately I wasn't able to be in group for the last 15km so I had to struggle in my own battle.

"In that third lap I just gave it everything. I was seeing stars. It was one of the most gruelling experiences I ever had."

Westgaard has qualified for three more events in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea but said a recent illness has weakened him so, after a medical review, he will decide whether he will take part in all three. The 50km, on the final day of competition on 24 February, is his best event so he may concentrate on recovering fully for that.

Briliant team spirit with @SnowsportsIRE @olympiccouncil team members @mcwindy, Bubba Newby & Seamus O’Connor getting a feel for the snow @sportireland @RTEsport @Inst_of_Sport pic.twitter.com/aZyghfLtoP

Earlier, Clare skier Patrick McMillan saw his Winter Olympics debut put on hold after winds of up to 45mph at Jeongseon forced the organisers to postpone the men's Downhill.

It has been rescheduled to Thursday and, as a result, the men's Super-G – which is McMillan's other event – has been moved to Friday, which means he will now be racing on consecutive days.

However, the Killaloe man was not perturbed, saying: "This is very normal. Skiing's an outdoor sport and in Downhill we often have to wait for the weather.

"I'm actually happy because I've had three days of very good training on the course and now I can get a day's rest."

Alpine skier Tess Arbez is next in action for Ireland, taking part in the Giant Slalom tomorrow at 4.45am Irish time.

Watch highlights of the 2018 Winter Olympics tonight on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player at 8.30pm

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