Ah, life on the Canadian National Snowboard team. It’s waking up in the French Alps, and hanging out at the most chi-chi of European ski resorts. It’s photo-ops and media sessions. It’s making friends with fellow athletes from Austria, Finland and Japan. It’s personal trainers and top-line medical care. It’s, it’s…
“It’s a lot of hard work, and many, many, many hours spent in airports and on airplanes,” says Dartmouth Olympian Sarah Conrad, laughing. “One time, my teammate Brad Martin and I had to travel from the Czech Republic to Japan for the World Juniors. We flew from the Czech Republic to Toronto, stayed overnight and then flew from Toronto to Japan. It was basically the wrong way around the globe, but it was the least expensive way to get there.”
For the 20-year-old Conrad—a half-pipe specialist and the only Nova Scotian on the 2006 Canadian Winter Olympic team—that trip was in contrast to her career, which has mostly been going in the right direction since she joined the international snowboarding circuit. She learned to ski as toddler at Ski Martock near Windsor, switching to snowboarding in her early teens. Her first competition was with her twin brother John, in an anything-he-can-do-I-can-do-better sibling rivalry. She started competing in events on local hills in 1999, made the provincial team and finished fifth in the junior category at the 2000 national championships. With her parents’ support—and financing—she entered a number of Nor-Am events the next year, one step below the World Cup. Conrad won events in BC and Alberta, finishing ahead of boarders already on the national squad, and earning an invitation to the 2002 World Junior championships.
For 2003-04, Conrad was the recipient of the Neil Daffern Award from the Canadian Snowboard Federation, naming her the top developing female boarder in the country. While the national team program would pay for an athlete’s accommodations while competing overseas, Conrad was responsible for airfare to get there. The cash prize of $5,000 enabled her to enter seven World Cup events in 2003-04, where she finished in the top 10 three times, including a fourth-place finish at Bardonecchia, Italy, the site of the 2006 Olympic competition.
Great athletes will tell you that overcoming adversity is what makes a champion, and last year was Conrad’s test. Early in the season, she shattered the humerus bone (running from the shoulder to the elbow) in her left arm while training in California. Surgery and months of physiotherapy kept her off the World Cup circuit, and she only got back on her board in time for the season-ending World Junior championships. She now competes with an eight-inch plate and nine screws holding her arm together.
“That was a big blow, because I felt I really could have accomplished a lot last season,” she says. “I wasn’t able to do any of the World Cups, which is what is supposed to qualify you for the Olympics. But fortunately there is an injury clause and they were able to use my results from the previous year.”
While she feels she is now back to where she was prior to the injury, as the youngest female member of the 2006 snowboard team, she refers to herself as “a 2010 athlete.” As recently as two years ago, these Olympics weren’t even in her plans, and she says even a top 10 or 15 finish in Torino would be “amazing.”
“I’m not saying that I’ll win, but I know I have what it takes to compete at the Olympic level,” she says. “This will be my first Olympics, and it’s not like any competition I’ve been in before. And they say each time you go to an Olympics, it prepares you for the next one. I really want to do well when the Games are in Canada.”
Literally and figuratively, Conrad knows she has already travelled a long way from Ski Martock, and in her voice there is a tone of wonder in it all.
“Martock is where I started, and that’s what got me to where I am now. And I’m not the first person from Martock to make it to the Olympics.”
Then she laughs again. “It must be something in the big breakfast they serve up there.”
The women’s half-pipe competition at the 2006 Winter Olympics will take place on February 13.
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