PROVO, Utah What's it like for a 43-year-old father, busy with family and the Church, to compete in the Olympics?
Paul O'Connor of the Provo 1st Ward, Provo Utah Bonneville Stake, can tell you it isn't easy. He represented his native country of Ireland in the Olympic 1500-meter cross country skiing race. Although he was Ireland's first Nordic racer and one of the oldest athletes to compete in harsh physical races, he was far from the gold and far from the headlines. But none of that seemed to matter.
Not only did he make the grueling effort of training and competing successfully in distant competitions to qualify for the Games, but he also left Olympic Village two days before his race to finish his home teaching. The evening after his race, he left the village again to attend Young Women New Beginnings with his 11-year-old daughter, Julia.
"Like that Church poster says, 'Some things are nice, but some things are important,' " he said in a Church News interview.
Brother O'Connor fulfilled a long-held dream as he became one of seven Olympians representing Ireland. He had trained as a Nordic racer to be in the Albertville, France, Olympics in 1992 but Ireland decided not to send an Olympic team that year.
"I was crushed, but there was nothing I could do about it," he said. "Ever since then I have held on to that dream for every Olympics."
As the Salt Lake Games approached, "I thought, 'This might be my last chance,' so I decided to give it a shot, and by golly, I got there."
He had to qualify as an athlete and then get through the various levels of approval. These levels began with the Ski Association of Ireland, which represents 40,000 Irish skiers, then led to the International Ski Federation (FIS), then to the Olympic Council of Ireland, and finally, the International Olympic Committee and Salt Lake Organizing Committee.
"There was quite a bit of paper work," he said.
Qualifying as an athlete also required some serious ski work. The convert of 25 years and returned missionary avoided Sunday competitions. He raced in marathon and freestyle competitions that were far more rugged than the Olympic competition. Traveling from one race, he was trapped in his car in an ice storm in northern Idaho. "It was windy and bitterly cold. I was short of cash and I was very concerned about how to make it through the night," he said. He opened his scriptures and happened to read in Malachi, the passage about tithing that begins, "Prove me now herewith" (Malachi 3:10). He had just paid his tithing and felt he would be blessed. A snowfall insulated his car and maintained its temperature till morning.
"It sounds like a simple story, but there is no way I can express in words either the profundity of faith I experienced that night, nor the gratitude I felt in my heart."
The Olympics brought some surprises. His neighbors, friends and relatives some who "didn't know a ski from a hockey stick" became strong supporters of his effort and cheered him on. Among his most devoted supporters was his mother, Sheila, who traveled from Ireland. Her experiences in Salt Lake City increased her friendship to the Church.
At the Olympics, where Brother O'Connor was taken for a coach more often than for an athlete, he made friendships with athletes from around the world.
"I used to eat often with the Jamaican bobsled team. One morning this nice guy joined us for breakfast and we struck up a conversation. Later I discovered it was Prince Albert of Monaco."
He found time to be an ambassador for Ireland, giving instrumental Celtic music concerts, of which he is currently recording a CD.
When it came time for the qualifying race, "I made some mental errors before the race that resulted in a sub-par performance," he said. His skis were slow and he was not as warmed up as he could have been. He ended up placing near the last of 72 skiers, even behind others he had bested in earlier competitions.
"As an athlete, I had to deal with those very difficult emotions the day after the race.
"One advantage of having a testimony of the gospel is that it helps us put things in perspective," he said. "There were a number of athletes I was able to help. They did not win any medals, but they are men of character who are true champions in my mind."
Disappointment slipped away and meaning came as he helped others. When a young athlete from another nation raced, Brother O'Connor waited for him at the top of a grueling hill, far from the other spectators.
"Our eyes met as he passed," he said. "No words were needed. He knew I was there for him."
After the race, said Brother O'Connor, he visited the young athlete, who "lay on the floor like a wornout rug, physically and emotionally exhausted. My friend was in tears. He sobbed continually like a little child for a long time as he sought to recover from the ordeal he had been through. He was now an Olympian. He cried tears of both pain and joy. And I cried with him."
Following his race, Brother O'Connor received many congratulatory e-mails and appreciative coverage in the Irish press.
"It really has been a joy," he said.