Paul Griffin should have guessed this was going to be one of those trips when his wallet came back to him $300 light after he'd left it on the connecting flight from Cork to Heathrow on his way to Alaska. Or when Western Union confused him with another Paul Griffin in their system who had a gladly-pay-you-Tuesday credit rating and wouldn't release any cash to him, landing him in Anchorage with $13 and nothing but cancelled cards to his name. Or when he saw the start list for last Monday's American National Championships and found that instead of being sent off as one of the early starters – as is the norm with the expected back markers in European cross-country skiing – he'd have to head out after three-quarters of the field had chopped up the snow ahead of him.
But if the past year has taught him anything, it's that fate doesn't always need a map and a torch to find its way. So he knuckled down and got on with getting on and was making a solid start in his final qualifying race for next month's Winter Olympics until disaster crooked its finger at him a kilometre in. He came to the first steep downhill-uphill combination and got it all wrong on terrain he describes as "like the Grand National on a wet day". He wiped out, turned himself into a small forest of skis and poles and as he picked himself up to get going again, realised he'd bent the top of one of his skis back by about half a metre. Shit.
His mind raced through a slideshow of options. For a quick second, he allowed himself the indulgence of the first one and he roared and cursed at the top of his voice just to get it out of himself before working out what to do next. He considered running back for his spare skis. No, too far – it'd take him 20 minutes before he was back on the snow. He thought about keeping going on one ski. No, that's just stupid. For a couple of seconds, he nearly resigned himself to pulling out.
"And then, out of nowhere," he says, "I saw this guy standing by the side of the course with his skis in his hand. He was just a local, a spectator out to watch the race, an older guy. I swear to God, he appeared as if out of heaven, standing there on the top of the slope I had just fallen down.
"Now, I knew that rules said you're allowed to change one ski and carry on racing but not two. So I just said to him, in a blind panic, 'Can I borrow one of your skis?' And he understandably sort of hesitated and said, 'What kind of bindings do you have?' And it turned out I had the same ones as him and so he reluctantly said okay. So I took it off him and set off and he was shouting after me, 'Make sure and bring it back, y'hear! I'm stuck out here on one ski if you don't!' And I'm there, going, 'Yeah, yeah, sound job. I will, I will.'"
(A quick digression for the science bit. To qualify for Vancouver, you have to take part in at least five races between 6 December and 17 January. The winner of each race is awarded zero points and then each competitor coming in his wake gets points based on how much time has passed when they cross the line. The average of your best five races is then taken as your score for the campaign and the B Standard for qualification is below 300 points. Griffin went to Alaska with an average in the mid-270s and needed only to finish around 15 minutes behind the winner to nail an average somewhere in the 290s. If he failed, he'd have to find another race somewhere in the world within a week or the past year would have been for nought.)
And so he tore on. His skis were utterly mismatched – one was yellow, one was orange; one had been professionally waxed underneath in preparation for racing, the other had been hanging in someone's basement that morning. They weren't even the same length. But Griffin didn't care and he raced on as though something had clicked inside him and he'd found a supply of coal for his engine that hadn't been touched for a while.
"At one point," he says, "I got past a fella who was clearly a local favourite of some sort because there were about 20 people around him cheering him on up this hill were climbing. And I was pushing on and pushing on and there was no way this fella was passing me up that hill. No way in the world. And that was great feeling too because I was pissing off the locals, plugging away with two different coloured skis, no right to be doing what I was doing. I found it totally exhilarating.
"My girlfriend was on the internet, tracking it all live on the website. She's good at working out the points average and the timings and how it all shakes out on the end. And she sent me a text after it going, 'Not sure what happened you but it looks like your average is going to be 299.34.' I was just f**king elated when I read that. I couldn't believe it. I had screwed up so badly, done everything wrong that you could do wrong and I'd still survived, just about.
"We worked out afterwards that had I been just nine seconds slower in that race, I would have pushed the average up over 300. If yer man had been even another five metres up the hill or if he'd haggled with me over the skis or anything like that, everything would have been gone. It's one of those things. That sort of thing has been happening to be the whole time all year."
He never did get the name of the man with the skis. Between the jigs and the reels afterwards, he had to head off to the airport to make his way home. But he's getting on to the organisers to try and find him and he's fairly confident somebody will know who it was. Fate finds its way, don't worry about that.
• • •
You know him as a rower if you know him at all. Strokeman for the Irish lightweight four, a veteran of Athens and Beijing, he's the one who former Olympic teammate Niall O'Toole once described as "the toughest man in Irish sport". To get him to explain how he got to this point means picking at the scab of wounds of Olympics past. He spent the second week in Beijing in a funk, bitter that they'd only made the B final and it was there and then that he decided he'd had enough of rowing for a while. He took Stephen Martin, the OCI's chief executive, for a coffee one day and told him that he was thinking of building on the cross-country skiing training they'd done as rowers a few years earlier and maybe having a crack at qualifying for Vancouver two years down the road.
By December, he was in Sweden, falling on his ass and getting up again under the eye of Rolf Hagstrom who would become a coach, a guide and a friend over the months that followed. In early March, he took part in the World Championships in the Czech Republic purely because it was a prerequisite for qualifying for the Olympics. He was lapped twice but it didn't matter. Turning up was the thing.
With the summer came a proper break and it wasn't something he particularly welcomed. Beijing was still there, still rattling around in his head, waiting for the right moment to jump out at him. He'd promised himself that he'd work through it at some point but he kept putting it off. No point dressing this up in clothes that don't fit – the skiing was a way to keep his mind off what had happened to them, to distract him from having to deal with underperforming on the biggest stage. Now he had some downtime, fertile soil for dark thoughts to take root.
"I had been constantly on the go for more or less four and a half years at that point and really, I was wiped. I crashed pretty badly and was very tired for a long time. I was physically burnt to a crisp. I just did too much and I didn't deal well with Beijing. I didn't deal with it at all actually.
"I was in a kind of a depressed state, I'd say. I was wondering if the skiing was a good idea at all and trying to properly process Beijing and for a while there, I was kind of wandering in my head. It was like I had nothing to aim for, even though I had this huge thing that I was attempting to do. I was tired but it wasn't training tiredness or even a physical tiredness. It was an emotional tiredness and it comes from the way I race and train. I always knew as a rower that it was heart and spirit that were my big plus points, that if you put a mountain in front of me I wouldn't stop running until I got to the top of it. But you pay a big emotional price for that when it's all over."
In the years between Athens and Beijing, they were constantly in the top five crews in the world. They medalled twice at World Championships and won the World Cup. But behind-the-scenes tensions between them and German coach Harald Jahrling took its toll at exactly the wrong time and when Jahrling moved on in 2007, the damage had more or less been done. They went through the indignity of having to wait until the final qualifier to make it to the Olympics at all. And once they got there, one disaster begot another until they found it was all over and they were officially ranked 10th. They may as well have sat in the stands for all the good 10th was to them.
"I felt heartbroken," he says. "We had our chance and we pissed it away as a group. F**k it, we know well we did. I really believed that we could be in the final over there. I thought we could be pushing people. I know that in 40 years, we'll remember that we were the Irish lightweight rowers who went to the Olympics with world medals to our name and came home with nothing. And not because we lost by two feet after having an unmercifully storming race but because we f**ked it up as a group. And it hurts still.
"So I had to get away. I just said to myself there was no way I was going to be sitting inside in a bar in Killarney through the winter telling great stories of how hard done by we were. I decided that cross-country skiing would be something new and something that I could maybe transfer across the strength I have from a lifetime in another sport. I wanted to give myself an outlet, to do something.
"Look, it's definitely there in me because it happened and I can never, ever forget it and will always regret that we didn't do what we were capable of. But I won't carry it around with me. It won't be a chip on my shoulder, no way. That's not me. I think there are enough assholes in the world without me making it one more."
The past year has been struggle, always struggle. Logistically, this life is a cryptic crossword where the rowing was a wordsearch. Just making the start-line in each race takes him between 15 and 20 hours on the internet. Airports have to be found, flights haggled over, accommodation sourced, lifts cadged, waxers pleaded with, skis transported, baggage charges got around, all before he sweats a bead. And all this on the $1,000 a month he cobbles together from the Olympic Solidarity Scholarship. It's the Olympics alright but not as he knows it.
"It's been a great thing to see it from the bottom up. The Olympics are all about the universality of sport and all nations coming together and all that and while that was a nice thought when I was a rower, it never really was something I gave too much time to. It just didn't really concern me that this was something for everybody to get together on. If, say, the Indians or the Cubans had a lightweight four, they were no concern of mine. That just wasn't my headspace. It was a nice story to read in a book maybe or in a newspaper.
"But now I'm seeing it from the other side completely. Now that's my reality. It's about a journey now and I never really saw it that way when I was rowing. You just did it and you suffered and you were tired for years. With this, you have a new life that you never imagined you'd have. I'm meeting people every week now that I'll be telling stories about in 30 years."
People like Isaac Menyoli, a 37-year-old Cameroonian who competed in the Salt Lake City games in 2002. His country's first ever winter Olympian, he did it so that he could get on TV all across Africa for a month and tell men to wear condoms after some of his friends died of AIDS. He's an intermittent presence on the scene now but when Griffin was sitting in his hotel room in Anchorage wondering how he was going to get to the course without the price of a taxi, it was Menyoli who rang to let him know he had a car and would give him a lift if he wanted. Enough to make a man believe that some things are written for them.
"It's almost like this is meant to happen to me. I'm meant to go to Vancouver. I know that when you're on your own and you're fighting for everything, people see that in you and things tend to go your way eventually. I know that there's a logic to it all if you sit back from it and think it through. But I definitely think there's something on my side here. I'd definitely like to believe now that good things happen to people with good intentions."
When he started in December 2008, good intentions and a serious level of fitness were all he had going for him. He started completely from scratch and presented himself as a blank canvas for the sport to paint itself onto. He asked questions constantly. Dumb questions. The same questions to five different people sometimes just so that he could see if there was any nuance hiding in the nooks and crannies of the answers he got. Every new person was an ATM for new information and the nature of the people he met along the way was such that he only had to ask for the code and they'd start spewing.
In the beginning he reckons some of the Swedes and Norwegians might have been a bit suspicious of him, the way a Tipp man might look a Yank up and down if he turned up in Thurles one day out of the blue and declared himself a hurler. But he made sure in conversation to drop in the fact that he'd rowed in two Olympics, left nobody in any doubt that he was serious about this, that he wasn't just some Paddy looking for a handy route to the Winter Olympics.
Anyway, if that's what his game was, he'd surely have picked a less taxing sport than cross-country skiing. So many sports declare themselves the toughest on the planet but still everybody bends the knee to the cross-country skiers. No other sport works so many muscles, joints and limbs so hard for so long for such comparatively little return.
"The races are long," he says, "on average around 50 minutes. And they're just raw endurance. There have been times in races where I've felt the same as I've felt at the end of a rowing race and I've realised that I have 40 minutes left to go. So you kid yourself that you're okay and you grab a little breather on the next little downslope and you're away again. They're physically very tough to do and tough to recover from.
"You're using all four limbs at rowing intensity. I tell you, however bad the pain was when I was rowing, it's a different story when you're 15 minutes into a 45-minute race and your heart-rate is 180 and you feel right at the end of what you can reasonably ask your body to do for you. But you just pick it up and wait for the next little downhill. That's what I like, the ebb and flow of it all."
He's competing against himself and against the sport but realistically not against the majority of the field. For a man who was a world-class athlete in different clothing and on a different surface, that can't have been fun from the start.
"Well, when I went into it, I had a completely open mind in all directions. Part of me was like the guy in the Tommy Tiernan skit about running the marathon – 'Sure f**k it, I'll probably win the f**king thing!' But obviously, I realised very quickly that I was going to be nowhere near the top half, no matter how much work I did.
"With rowing, I was elitist I suppose you'd call it. It's a very different mindset from where I am now. You're going from a situation where you're going to the summer Olympics with a realistic thought of a medal in your head to trying to scrape into the winter Olympics by the skin of your teeth on a B standard. It's a very different thing. But the golden thread running between both experiences is that I'm still competitive, I'm still fighting for every last inch."
Still fighting and still learning with every new dawn. He'll find in the next 10 days whether or not he's done enough to be picked for Vancouver. Ireland can send one skier who's achieved the B Standard and so the place will be between Griffin and PJ Barron, a Scot who declared for Ireland last year under the parentage rule. Barron has an average in the mid-270s, however, so Griffin has decided to take part in another race in the hope that he can drag his own average back down to around that level and give Snow Sport Ireland a tougher choice than they have now. He'll fly out tomorrow and make his way to Bozeman, Montana, in the US for a race next Saturday. If he can stay upright all the way around, not break anything, not have to call on any guardian angels and post a reasonable time, there's every chance he'll get the nod.
"I would be heartbroken now if I wasn't selected. I know I would be. Because I've battled and battled to get to this point. I've been through so much and, unlike when I was rowing, I've done it on my own. The things that were put in front of me that I've fought past, the luck that I've had and the people I've met – if all that was for nothing now, I'd be devastated.
"You only have a certain lifespan. And I know people say that the whole time and I always heard people say it and never passed it any mind. But it's only when you get out and experience the world beyond your own world that you get to see the truth in it. I have to make hay while I'm young. It's an alternative way of doing things, I'll admit. But what a fantastic adventure."
Call him mad. Call him feckless. Call him a child who refuses to join the grown-up world where people have to have jobs and responsibilities and the slings and arrows of real life to deal with. But think about the world he's seen and lives he's led and the highs and lows and tos-and-fros and ask yourself if his path is the wrong one.
Not by any stretch.
Honours: World Rowing Championships 2005 – silver in the lightweight four; World Rowing Championships 2006 – bronze in the lightweight four
Did you know? It's common in cross-country skiing for the venue to be switched at the last minute if there's been a thaw, sometimes to a different town altogether. "The traditions of the sport are that you race where the snow is," says Griffin, "and if it isn't where you hoped it would be, then you move somewhere else."