River Radamus poses with his giant slalom gold medal at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games at the Hafjell Olympic Slope on Feb. 17, 2016 in Hafjell, Norway.
HAFJELL, Norway – Nothing draws a crowd quite like the men’s giant slalom.
At the base of the Hafjell course, a large crowd has gathered to watch 60 athletes burning down the mountain in search of gold-medal glory. A DJ plays party tunes. Cowbells clang with every completed run. And for Ireland’s Gary Skinner, there is the novel experience of being accosted by autograph hunters.
“That’s the first time [that has ever happened],” he said, smiling after registering a DNF [did not finish] in the second slalom run. “They’re asking everybody, but it feels good. The Youth Olympics is a great experience.”
Skinner lives in Dublin, where towering snow-capped mountain ranges are few and far between. He first started skiing at the age of five on some “plastic slopes” near the city. Later, his parents also took him on skiing family holidays. An interest in alpine racing began when he was 11.
“I go whenever I can, but it’s a bit hard to get time off [school],” the 17-year-old said. “I only really started training last year. This year it’s been tougher because I’m in a harder year in school, but I’m happy I made it here.”
For River Radamus, of the USA, stardom is a sensation he might have to grow accustomed to – and quickly. Having already taken gold in both the Super-G and the alpine combined this week, he swept into first place after two runs on the Hafjell course, with times of one minute 17.16 seconds and 1:17.89, for a total of 2:35.05. The performance put him ahead of Yohei Koyama of Japan in silver, and bronze medalist Anton Grammel of Germany.
“It’s surreal,” Radamus said. “I can’t compare it to anything. I’ve never had success at this scale. There are 60 competitors out there and anyone could have won it.
“I went to Vancouver [for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games] and watched the slalom and the GS [giant slalom]. There’s nothing like this competition, people representing their nations at the highest level of the sport. It’s a really great atmosphere.”
Radamus has said he started his skiing career before he could walk. As a two-year-old, while his dad was coaching the US ski team, he was slapped into a pair of skis and “scooted around the hill”.
This early start has paid dividends, though the buzz of winning has hardly diminished over the years.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush [to win at the Youth Olympic Games],” he said. “There’s a moment of waiting when you finish, when the board’s down the hill, and a moment of anticipation where you think, ‘That run was pretty good, right? I have no idea of how I did though…’.
“Then you look around the corner and you see the green light [that shows you are in first place]. It’s such a rush.”
Radamus is under no illusion as to the level of support his parents have given him during his formative years. One of his medals, he said, is going to his mum.
“She came out for the race today,” he said. “It’s great to see her here and have her support me.”
Now he has his eye on a clean sweep, with his final appearance in the Winter YOG looming in the men’s slalom on Friday (19 February). Gathering a clean sweep in Lillehammer is at the “back of my mind”, he admitted.
It’s at the back of his rivals’ minds, too.
“I talk to him and he said that he is really skiing good in slalom,” Italian alpine skier Pietro Canzio said. “But we really have to get faster than him because three is OK, but four? No.”