ALERT BAY—Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien will not be bringing an Olympic medal home from her stay at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. But, boy, did Cormorant Island ever get a party out of the trip.
O’Brien, 26, was born and spent her early childhood in Alert Bay before relocating to Courtenay. In recent years, she has vaulted to the upper echelon of women’s slopestyle boarding, earning world championships in 2012 and 2013 in the discipline that made its Olympic debut this month.
“She’s really made us proud,” said Minnie Johnston, O’Brien’s grandmother. “It’s so exciting — but I still get scared when she goes up in the air so high.”
When she qualified on the opening day of the 2014 Winter Games for the medal-round finals, Alert Bay pulled out all the stops to celebrate and urge her on to success.
Saturday afternoon, 10 hours before the 1:15 a.m. Pacific start of the slopestyle finals, more than 200 residents gathered — many dressed in regalia — in front of the big house for a community photo and impromptu pep rally.
Facing a brilliant winter sun but a biting, chilly breeze, the crowd waved Canadian flags and a wide assortment of signs, sang O Canada, and chanted, “Lets’ go, Spencer!” under the watchful gaze of a CBC television camera.
At the centre of the rally were granny Minnie and O’Brien’s aunty and uncle, Juanita Johnston and Aubrey Johnston.
Later that night, two separate viewing parties were held in the community. O’Brien’s family and friends gathered at the local Legion Hall to party and watch the broadcast of the slopestyle finals, while a separate, all-ages event took place at the Rec Centre.
“Oh, my God, they are so stoked,” said Terri Popovich, who helped organize the Legion event. “Kids at both schools made banners, and you should see all the posts on Facebook.”
A group of volunteers spent much of the day decorating the Rec Centre with banners, balloons and pennants, as well as a huge poster of O’Brien. A large projection screen was hung from one gymnasium wall, with a projector set up to provide the live feed of the finals.
Tanis Dawson, who directed the decorating crew, said she remembered the young O’Brien from her days as the girl’s baby-sitter.
“My daughter was so excited that I baby-sat (O’Brien),” Dawson said. “But then, I baby-sat everyone, so it’s not that big of a deal. Still, I’m excited.”
As the clock ticked past midnight and into the early morning hours, children were treated to snacks donated by the ‘Namgis Band and face painting while the men’s downhill played on the large screen.
As the women’s slopestyle finals came on, the lights were turned out and the crowd of nearly 100, ranging from infants to elders, whooped when the announcer introduced “Alert Bay’s Spencer O’Brien.”
Those whoops faded to groans when O’Brien struggled with the landing on the first of her jumps in the opening run, and her medal hoped evaporated when she slipped again on the second and final run. The Rec Centre audience let out a collective gasp but, after a moment’s pause, regrouped for a hearty round of applause.
“We still love you, Spencer,” one woman called.
“I went for my hardest run and it didn’t work out today,” O’Brien told reporters following the competition. “So I’m really disappointed and really sad that I let Canada down.”
The Alert Bay contingent was similarly disappointed but hardly felt let down.
Her aunt Juanita noted that O’Brien had been particularly focussed on these 2014 Winter Games as they may prove to be her only shot at the quadrennial international showcase.
“She’s 26, so she would be 30 when the Olympics come again,” Juanita Johnston said. “Not too many people are still competing at this level at that age.”
On the other hand, the eventual bronze medal-winner Sunday morning was Great Britain’s Jenny Jones, at 33 the oldest competitor in the women’s field.
And, one day after her disappointing finals, O’Brien took to her Facebook page and provided an indication she may not yet be ready for retirement.
“It came and went,” she wrote. “Really sad not to put down my run, but stoked to be a part of snowboard history. See ya in Pyeong Chang? #30andhopefullystillgotit.”