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Born in Ireland, Utah-raised Brendan Newby realizes Olympic dream by competing in ski halfpipe event

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Riding mismatched skis, Orem native Brendan “Bubba” Newby stood at the top of the awe-inspiring Olympic halfpipe, put his mitten-covered hands on either side of his mouth and yelled, “It’s dinna time!”

That’s how you handle the kind of nerves that cause even the world’s greatest athletes to buckle when you're skiing under the Irish tricolor.

“The more you can distract your brain from thinking about it, from letting it get in your head (the better),” Newby said after competing in his first Olympic games as a freeskier for Ireland. “I just distracted myself.”

Newby had no choice but to wear mismatched skis for Tuesday's competition because he broke one at a qualifying tournament at Mammoth Mountain. He brought it with him to South Korea, although he wasn't sure why at the time. Then, on the first day of training in Pyeongchang, he broke one of the skis he intended to use in competition. A Swiss skier offered to loan him a pair, but the bindings didn't work, so he just threw on the mismatched skis and made it work.

The 21-year-old lives and coaches in Park City, but he was able to represent Ireland in the Olympics because he was born there when his father was teaching at the University of College Cork.

“It’s been unreal,” he said, wrapped in an Irish flag after finishing 22nd, 10 spots below the cut to qualify for the finals, with a first run score of 53.80. “For the rest of my life, I’m an Olympian. And it’s something I’ve wanted my entire life. So to have it actually happen, I can’t even put it into words.”

Newby was 13th after the first run, one spot away from qualifying for Wednesday’s finals. But that was something the skier the Irish have dubbed “The Corker from Cork” didn’t know until talking with reporters. But it didn’t matter, he said with a shrug because he had his own goals that had nothing to do with the scores offered by judges.

“I was just about improving the run,” he said after missing the cut for Wednesday’s finals. “I had one more trick I wanted to put down on my second run. I was just out there trying to fire it and go big.”

He fell on his second run, but one would never have known based on the cheers from his very enthusiastic and emotional crowd of supporters, which included his large family from Utah (four siblings, parents and a niece), as well as a lot of Team USA fans who know him from Park City, and many volunteers who may just be smitten by his long blond locks and easy smile.

Newby’s father, Van, started him skiing when he was just a wee lad chasing after his two older brothers.

“I started skiing with my dad and (two) older brothers,” he said. “They all got interested in other things, but I just never stopped skiing. It’s what I wanted to do. But I wasn’t part of a formal program until I was 14. Then I joined Park City’s Freestyle program.”

Kin Cheung, Associated Press

Newby may have been content to continue teaching himself tricks he saw on YouTube, but he had a particularly bad crash, and his mother, Bethanie, said he needed to find himself a more structured program.

That’s when he joined Park City’s Freestyle Team.

“A coach definitely came in handy,” he told the Deseret News the day before his Olympic debut in Phoenix Freestyle Park’s halfpipe ski competition. “It worked out for a while. … It’s always been about having fun. The best I ever do is when I’m having the most fun.”

Newby said he may not have considered competing for Ireland if he hadn’t known another Park City resident who’d done it and if he hadn’t lived in a community that hosted the 2002 Winter Games.

The 2018 Ireland team flag bearer was Park City resident Seamus O’Connor, who was born in California but had paternal grandparents born in Ireland. O'Connor competed in men’s halfpipe and slopestyle snowboarding for Ireland.

“My sport wasn’t an Olympic event until 2014, so growing up that was never really an option,” he said. “I always wanted to be an Olympian, but I was a freeskier, and that wasn’t an option.”

Newby’s father took him to a few Olympic events when Salt Lake City hosted the Games in 2002, and Park City was host to the snowboard and freestyle events.

“It probably helped that you could throw a snowball with your left hand, with your eyes closed and hit an Olympian,” he said of living in Park City. “They’re everywhere, and that definitely made it feel more real. And then the 2014 Games roll around, and our sport is part of it, that definitely made it a goal.”

In talking with O’Connor about competing for Ireland, Newby got curious. He did a little research and found out that because he was born in Cork when his parents lived there for two years, he was eligible for dual citizenship, which he now has.

“I emailed the (Irish Olympic Committee) and talked to them, and then I sent them some video,” he said. “They invited me to compete for them, but I had to qualify for the Olympics.”

That meant traveling the world competing in qualifying events, which he did. When he told his parents that he wanted to try and make the Irish Olympic Team they were thrilled. In fact, they told him they’d always wondered why they chose Ireland when Van Newby had teaching offers in several places around the world, and now they knew.

“They feel like this is why they chose it,” he said. “I love it. I would rather represent the Irish team than any other. People say, ‘You’re just choosing Ireland because of this or that.’ But I am choosing Ireland because I love it.” The country is thrilled to have its first freeskier — a halfpipe daredevil who is putting the sport on the map.

“It’s insane,” he said. “To be Ireland’s first ever freestyle skier and first ever halfpipe skier, I didn’t think it would happen. After my first run, a few kids messaged me on Instagram saying some stuff. I just want to get out there, and I don’t want to be the last freestyle skier.”

He said one of the reasons he chose to compete in ski halfpipe for Ireland is to show that the sport is more accessible than it looks, as the tricks the top riders are throwing can be very intimidating.

“I want to get more people on the team, get more people skiing on the team,” he said. “I want to get more people involved in doing what I love. This is the most fun thing you could ever do, and I hope I made it look like I was having a good time. Because I was.”

The family and friends of Brendan "Bubba" Newby celebrate his clean first run in Tuesday's qualifying rounds of ski halfpipe. He became Ireland's first free skier, competing in ski halfpipe's qualifying rounds on Wednesday. He didn't make the finals, finishing in 22nd place. | Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

He hopes people look at him and see possibility through hard work.

“It doesn’t have to be big and scary,” he said of the halfpipe. “If I can just get people happy and excited and enjoying themselves on the hill, that’s when the results would come in. That’s when I land the runs, and when I do my best. If I bring my attitude, and bring it to their effort, if they love it, they’ll succeed.”

After he finished his required media interviews, a group of friends from Park City, most dressed in Team USA gear but holding Irish flags, asked for some pictures.

Then he found his large, loud, green and orange-clad family. It was a lot of yelling and cheering until he wrapped his arms around his mother in a long, tight embrace.

“They’re the best family ever,” he said. “I could hear them (at the top of the pipe) for sure. It fired me up. I’m so glad they came. I wouldn’t be here without them. …They’re excited for me, and they love Ireland.”

Newby said the experience has been far more than he expected and everything of which he dreamed.

Most of all, it’s taught him a lot about what life might have to offer him, and what he might have to offer the world.

“I know more of what I’m capable of,” he said. “And the influence I could have. I’m never going to sell myself short because I’ve done that a lot.”