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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Sudipto Ganguly