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Flying high

Neil Connolly does what he loves
Neil Connolly in his office.

Just over a year ago, at a whim, Whistler’s Neil Connolly went out on a limb and decided at the last minute to go to Europe for a World Cup big air competition. It was a new event on the tour, as well as the event where Connolly, a former halfpipe rider, felt the most comfortable.

He won that first event, and decided to stay with the tour for the rest of the season, earning more medals and top-five results to rank second overall at the end of the year.

This season he’s already been to one World Cup event in Europe, finishing fifth. He also won the first Nor Am competition at Mount Avilla, Quebec two weeks ago.

This Friday, Jan. 21, Connolly will be representing Canada in the first big air ever held as part of the FIS Snowboard World Championships. His friends and family back home in Collingwood, Ontario will be watching, but to him it’s no big deal.

"I don’t like to take it seriously," he said. "I don’t know why, but I tend not to do well if I take it seriously. Generally I do my best to forget all about it until the day of the contest when someone tells me to grab my board and get out there, go do what I like to do every day."

The Big Air is a growing World Cup event. At some contests in Europe they can see 10,000 fans or more at the jump-site. It’s being looked at as a potential sport for the Olympics, but Connolly says he isn’t getting his hopes up.

"I don’t know if I can see it happening just yet. It would be cool, and it would definitely make my life a lot easier, maybe there would be more money in it, but it will be a long process getting to that point," he said.

"In a way it makes sense. A lot of people do that kind of riding in snowboarding, so it’s got an audience everywhere. It’s good for the fans too, it’s really spectator friendly."

At one event in Munich, event organizers built a 10-storey ramp and jump in the parking lot outside of a soccer stadium on the day of the game. The contest got underway after the game was over, and most of the fans stuck around to watch the action.

"It was awesome. From the top of the ramp we could see into the stadium and watch the soccer game, and when it was over everybody stuck around to watch the competition," said Connolly.

Connolly spent a year on the national halfpipe team, but after a season of living out of his suitcase he decided it wasn’t for him. The big air is still demanding, but Connolly says it’s the type of riding he would be doing anyway.

He’s wanted to be a pro snowboarder since he was 10 years old, growing up a short drive from Blue Mountain. The parks and pipes were always icy in Ontario, but the area has produced some strong talent over the years, including riders like Brad Martin and Jesse Fox.

The challenging conditions and the high level of local competition made it a good place to progress, says Connolly.

"Look at the Finns. They have the same kind of thing as we do in Ontario, and they go huge in the pipe and in the big air. When all there is to do is ride a rock-hard, icy park, you spend a lot of time in there," he said.

Still, he’s always wanted to move out West to the mountains.

"My family, everybody I knew saw it coming. The day after I graduated from high school I was on a bus to the airport to move out to Whistler," he said.

On the World Cup circuit he won enough prize money to buy a snowmobile and a truck, joining all the pro snowboarders in the backcountry. He also works part-time as a cook at The Keg to make ends meet. It was the first place he worked when he arrived in Whistler, he’s friends with the staff, and his managers always welcome him back after he returns from competitions.

Connolly also rides the terrain park as often as he can, making laps of the tables and other stunts. That’s where he trains, learning new tricks and making his existing bag of stunts as stylish as possible – something the World Cup judges are looking for.

His current bag of competition tricks includes a cab 900 (switch takeoff, two and a half spins) although he’s playing around with a frontside 900, and switch backside 720. Some of the competitors are spinning 1080s, but not consistently or cleanly enough to please the judges.

At the world championships, his only goal is to make the top-10 after the qualifying runs, advancing to the finals. After that, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

"I’m playing with the idea of just going for it, there’s nothing to lose. There’s no prize money and no points – it’s a good opportunity to go out and try something and either make or break it. The only safe thing I’m going to try to do is qualify for the finals," said Connolly.

Connolly loves the idea of jumping for a crowd, although the weather isn’t looking too good for Friday’s competition. The jump itself will be in good shape with workers blowing snow to create an eight-metre high table during the recent cold snap, and riders will be able to compensate for the conditions by picking the right wax.

"We get three hours of practice time on Thursday, so we should have all of our gear dialled in by Friday. It should be a good show," he said. "There’s a lot of the guys from the World Cup here and Canada is pretty solid. Brad Martin, Justin Lamoureux and Guillaume Morisset are on the team, and any one of those guys can win it."

One thing that Connolly enjoys most about competing in the big air is the fact that there are no rivalries, and everybody gets along – you’re happy for others when they do well, and they’re happy with you. In the end it’s up to you and the judges.

"I love it. Being at a World Cup is like going for a day of riding with all of your friends. When a competition is over I hang out with the same guys I’m riding against. That’s the best part about snowboarding."

The big air competition takes place on Friday, Jan. 21 at Base II. The qualifier takes place from 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and the finals from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., followed by the awards ceremony. The gondola to Base II is free for spectators.