Hood River snowboarder Sean FitzSimons’ path to the Beijing Olympics began with skis and a pacifier at Mount Hood
Sean FitzSimons’ journey to the Winter Olympics began on a snowy mountain with a pacifier in his mouth.
He was a toddler, no older than 18 months, when his parents Jen and Mike started attaching skis to him so the family could go on adventures together in Mount Hood.
FitzSimons roamed the tracks in a harness, trying to keep up with his older brother Tucker, while Jen and Mike kept their boys close. Clothes were hard to come by for little skiers back then, so Jen and Mike gathered whatever they could find in the town of Hood River, leaving FitzSimons to patrol the slopes in ill-fitting boots and jackets and pants. mismatched snow. When his belly rumbled, he would rush over to Jen and spit out his pacifier.
“He was skiing to mom and the nurse,” Mike said, “and then skiing.”
There were of course countless breaks, including a trip or two to the lodge for a hot chocolate, but each adventure inevitably ended the same.
“There was something about the motion of the ski that would put them to sleep,” Jen said with a laugh. “We’d be skiing down the hill, with them on the harness, and before long I’d be like, ‘Huh. They’re kinda floppy. I’d catch up to them and realize, ‘Oh my God, they’re sleeping and coming out. threw them on our shoulders and we brought them home.
Nearly two decades later, FitzSimons has ditched the harness and pacifier, but his love for the mountains has only deepened. These childhood adventures spawned a lifelong passion, which propelled him to the pinnacle of winter sports.
FitzSimons, now 21, has become one of the best snowboarders in the world and one of the most accomplished winter sports athletes in Oregon history. He is one of four Oregonians to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics, joining alpine skiers Jackie Wiles, Tommy Ford and Luke Winters, and one of three snowboarders from Oregon to qualify for the Games since that snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998.
Salem’s Michele Taggart competed in the 1998 Winter Olympics and Ben Ferguson, who was born in Boise but grew up in Bend, competed in the 2018 Winter Games.
“When we were going to the mountains all those years ago,” Mike said, “we thought, ‘We’re snow people and we like to ski, so this is going to be a good family activity.’ But we never imagined all of this. It really took on a life of its own.
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It was the summer of 2020, relatively early in the pandemic, and the FitzSimons’ backyard was bustling with activity.
Seven outdoor tents dotted the landscape and more than two dozen members of the US Ski and Snowboard Team strolled around, many gliding down three skate ramps – including a gigantic full-size green ramp – that provided the backdrop for a skateboarding oasis.
Jen and Mike’s house in Hood River has always been a revolving door for their son’s friends, in part because of the heavily used skate ramps, but COVID-19 had taken things to a whole new level. Competitive American skiers flock to Oregon in the summer to train at Timberline, the country’s only year-round ski resort. But COVID had complicated things, and FitzSimons teammates from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team were struggling to find accommodation for the summer.
So Jen and Mike came up with a solution, setting up seven tents in their backyard and creating a place where 14 athletes can crash. There were a few COVID rules to keep safe – athletes were only allowed in the house to use the bathroom and shower, and they had to eat outside on the balcony – but they could come and go as they pleased and train whenever they wanted.
FitzSimons and his teammates would wake up early in the morning to practice at Timberline. After snowboarding most of the day, they would pit stop near the house to change and eat, then head out on their adventures. They would go cliff jumping in the Gorge and mountain biking around Hood River. They were kitesurfing and kayaking on the Columbia River. They would find a cool place near the water conducive to relaxation and refreshment. At night, when the heat dropped, they would hit the skate ramps in the house. The sessions were long and epic.
“They’re all amazing athletes and really good skaters,” Mike said. “And they were going hard all day. Some nights you could hear them skating until 2am. It was great fun.
It was actually skateboarding that led to FitzSimons’ Olympic career. He started skating at the age of 5 and was a natural from the start, going to the Rotary Park Skate Park in Hood River as often as his parents took him.
“It all started with skateboarding,” FitzSimons said. “I absolutely fell in love with it and the skatepark was pretty much my daycare center.”
Three years later, the owner of a skateboard and snowboard shop in town suggested he try snowboarding, and FitzSimons’ life changed forever.
Before long, he and his brother were competing in local snowboarding competitions. Then the regional competitions. Within two years, FitzSimons did so well that he qualified for national events. By age 13, FitzSimons had won national competitions in slopestyle and halfpipe events, and was invited to participate in the Revolution Tour, a national snowboard competition series created by US Snowboarding. This led to an invitation to Project Gold Camps, a junior development program with the US Ski Team, and at age 17 he was selected to join the US Snowboard Team.
“You could tell Sean had something special right from the start,” said Dave Reynolds, a Team USA snowboard coach from Bend. “Anyone the first time they meet him, especially on a mountain, can tell he has unique talent, coordination and athleticism. But it’s his hard work, his willingness to go from strength to strength. hours and perfecting the necessary stuff, which brought him here. He has an incredible natural talent, but he also works hard.
After graduating from Hood River Valley High School as valedictorian, FitzSimons moved to Park City, Utah to train full-time at the US ski and snowboard headquarters. The world-class facility sits on five acres and includes everything from trampolines to snowboard ramps to medical and nutritional experts, serving as America’s premier winter sports venue.
Since joining the national team, FitzSimons has competed internationally across the world, from Switzerland to Austria to Canada, and he estimates he spends around 250 days a year on a Mountain. But even among the best of the best, his passion stands out. Reynolds said daily practices always end the same way, with FitzSimons left as the last guy on the hill, pleading with the coaches with the same pleas: “One more try. I want one more try. I want to do it again.
This mixture of stubbornness and passion is anchored in its DNA.
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Make no mistake, Jen and Mike have had to massage countless bruises and bumps over the years, while FitzSimons has shredded skate parks, navigated mountains and jumped off cliffs.
But they only had to deal with two serious injuries. In eighth grade, he tore a ligament in his shoulder in a train accident and required surgery. And when he was a freshman in high school, FitzSimons had a gnarly fall on a trampoline and fractured his ankle. The incidents blocked his development in snowboarding, but did not completely prevent him from using the boards.
“I remember when her arm was in a sling after shoulder surgery,” Jen said. “I would meet people in town and they would be like, ‘Oh, I just saw Sean at the skate park. I can’t believe he’s slipping. I tell them, ‘Oh, he’s not supposed to be.’ It was the same with the ankle. He always found a way to make it work. He skateboarded around town with his leg in a boot, sat down, and used his crutches as a rudder. When he saw people we knew, he would say, “Oh, my God, did you see me? Please don’t tell my mom.
COVID has also been difficult to navigate. FitzSimons estimates he’s had more than 300 COVID tests in less than two years, and the stress of avoiding a virus while traveling around the world can be overwhelming. Mike proudly brags that no one who lived in the tents in 2020 tested positive for COVID at the time. But late last year FitzSimons tested positive, forcing him to miss a crucial Olympic qualifying event in Calgary and all but ending his Olympic quest.
FitzSimons only secured a place at the Winter Olympics on January 15, when – in his final run at the final qualifying event in Laax, Switzerland – he scored 80.91 points to clinch a medal Golden. The incredible finish boosted his US ranking to fourth and the international ranking to eighth.
Jen and Mike watched in awe at the 4 a.m. event in Hood River, both later describing the moment as “surreal”. But for FitzSimons, it was just another day on the mountain.
“It took a while to get going,” he said last week. “I wasn’t really panicked. It was just weird. I finished my race and did everything I could do. So I knew it was out of my hands. But the number of people who have reached out since – the overwhelming support from the entire snowboard community – has been insane. And Hood River is going crazy. It was awesome to see. But that probably won’t be fully understood until I’m in Beijing.
FitzSimons has been in Beijing for about a week, learning the class and training for a while that started on this mountain with a pacifier in his mouth. He will make his Olympic debut in the qualifying round at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and, if FitzSimons scores well enough to advance to the final, he will compete for a medal at 8 p.m. Sunday.
But while this may seem like the pinnacle of his snowboarding journey, those close to him believe it’s actually just the beginning.
“It’s just getting started,” Reynolds said. “He’s just starting to feel his groove and find out what he can do. This is by no means the end. This is just the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come back in four years with more ammo and, potentially, be a favorite.