B.C.’s Spencer O’Brien was the reigning world champion in slopestyle heading into the 2014 Winter Olympics. But what very few people knew was that she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis just months before the Games, and had been dealing with intense pain she’d only managed to control with medication just before the Olympics began. Still, O’Brien competed, and even cracked the final. But her 12th-place finish was widely viewed as a disappointment for one of Canada’s top medal hopes. Now, the 29-year-old heads to the 2018 Winter Games for a second shot at a Slopestyle medal and a first at the Big Air podium.
Sportsnet: You did every snowboarding discipline as a kid. What was it about slopestyle that drew you in?
O’Brien: Well, I didn’t like hiking up the halfpipe. [Laughs. ]
Honestly, as a 14-year-old, that was a big thing. I only get to snowboard two days a week, I don’t want to spend most of the time walking! I also loved that slopestyle was always evolving. I think having that constant push to be creative was really what made me fall in love with it. I love that every course is different; that at every contest, I have to figure out a new run. It felt a little less disciplined, and I think that freedom in snowboarding — no rules, I can do it however I want — that really spoke to me, and still does.
How does someone born in the tiny town of Alert Bay become one of the best snowboarders on the planet?
[My sisters and I] started to compete at local events and provincial-level events, and they were always in the [B.C.] interior. We would drive an hour to the ferry right after school, take the ferry, drive five hours, ride for two days, drive right after the contest was over, and try to catch the last ferry out of Vancouver back to the island. It was a crazy commitment on my dad’s part, so much driving and so much money…
And your dad’s name is Brian O’Brien, which is amazing.
I don’t know what his parents were thinking. [Laughs.]
When did you realize you were quite good at snowboarding?
It wasn’t until I was about 16 or 17. I had a couple years competing and I never did very well in halfpipe; I got second at Canadian nationals in juniors, once. But when I was 16, I started to do really well at a lot of local and amateur events. I was getting so into it, I watched snowboarding movies all the time, I was buying all the magazines, I was starting to become really obsessed. At the end of that season I got an agent.
When I was 16, my dad moved to Squamish with me. I enrolled in a new school and started riding three days a week, instead of two. That was my first year after I’d met my agent where I started to try to do contests outside of Canada and get into bigger events. Then in Grade 12, I actually homeschooled and moved to Whistler on my own. That was my first year being pro. I didn’t get a lot of school work done that year. [Laughs.]
You homeschooled yourself?
Yeah, I homeschooled myself, which was a really bad idea. [Laughs.] That was my first time travelling for major events, not having any teachers — it was a really tough transition for me. But I was pretty stoked. I was like, “This is crazy. I’m travelling with all my idols, I’m at these major contests.” I was kind of freaking out. But I actually didn’t really get any school work done, I basically took the winter off. I got home in the spring and had about five weeks to finish all my courses, and I just hammered it out. I went to school every day and sat in the library by myself and did all my work and somehow got it done.
Did you feel a bunch of pressure after turning pro?
The year after I graduated — my first full year away from home — I did get really homesick and struggled with the travel and the work aspect of becoming a pro rider. There were a lot of expectations and pressures on me that I never had before, coupled with being kind of a young kid.
How did you manage all of that?
The big thing was learning to believe in myself and develop that confidence in myself and in my riding. I realized those things weren’t necessarily bad pressure, they were also support, and it meant people believed in me. Reframing the way I looked at things really helped. And finding a better balance — making sure I made time for myself outside of snowboarding and made time for family and for friends.
It can be really hard when you dedicate so much to a sport, it can really consume you and you don’t have good balance in your life. I value my time off the snow and I value the feeling that gives me, that I really, really miss snowboarding and I want to get back to it.
Now that your rheumatoid arthritis is under control, you must be looking forward to a second shot at the Winter Games.
Yep, very excited about that. I’ve been pretty much symptom-free on my medication for more than two years now.
In Sochi, you never mentioned anything about the physical difficulties you’d been facing. How come?
I think for me to process [the diagnosis] in time [for the Olympics] and to be able to get there and push through, I almost had to pretend like it didn’t exist. I was like, “This didn’t happen. I’m at the Olympics and that didn’t happen, and I don’t have that condition.” I had to put it on the backburner to move forward. It wasn’t until the following season that I really processed it and became comfortable with it.
Did you know much about rheumatoid arthritis four years ago?
I honestly didn’t. It was like, “This is what you have, here’s some medicine, go to the Olympics.” And there was a lot of, “It’s not working, give me different medicine, go to the Olympics.” [Laughs.] It was a crazy time. The first medicine they put me on didn’t manage my symptoms well enough.
And the main symptom was chronic pain?
Yeah. And really, really bad morning pain. It would take me about five hours to not hurt after the morning. And the mornings were so bad. Like, I couldn’t get out of bed, bad. It would hurt to lift my head off the pillow, to put my feet on the ground. I would walk down a set of stairs — it was handrail, wall, one foot on every stair. It was an ordeal to walk downstairs to make coffee. It would get better throughout the day, but the mornings were so painful.
Were those moments happening in Sochi?
They weren’t, thankfully. I did feel good at those Games, and I feel like I showed up and I still had a very legitimate chance. That’s something I’m pretty proud of. I had to take off about six months before the Games because of everything that was happening with my body. I was like, “I can’t walk down a set of stairs, how am I going to snowboard?”
This pain came out of nowhere?
Not out of nowhere, it progressed gradually. I think that’s why I was unaware of how bad I actually was, and why I kind of attributed it to, “Oh, I’m just getting older.”
Wait. You were 25!
[Laughs.] I was thinking, “I do an impact sport. You’re supposed to hurt, you’re supposed to be sore.” I thought, “This is life.” Looking back, I hope that’s not life because that’s horrible. But it happened very gradually, and I had a lot of other injuries at the same time. It was a hard thing to pinpoint and to diagnose.
You’re heading to your second Games, and Big Air is making its debut. Any new tricks up your sleeve?
I’ve definitely been working on some new tricks for Big Air. It hasn’t been a female discipline for long [it was added to the Olympic program in 2015], so I don’t have a lot of experience in it, which is kind of cool for me. I’m about 10 years deep in slopestyle and now there’s this new event. It’s a much more tactical event, a lot more strategy goes into it compared to slopestyle, just with trick selection and who’s in your heat, what [score] you need to move on, and then the tricks you need to do in the final. Whereas for me in slopestyle, it’s real simple: I just want to do my best run and I don’t think about what anyone else is doing. But [Big Air] is so great, it’s such an amazing thing for women’s snowboarding to have this event — it pushes our sport so much. We’ve already seen it, the amount of progression that’s happened.
You landed the first backside 900 [two-and-a-half rotations] in Slopestyle competition, right?
I’m the first woman to do it at the Aspen X-Games.
What’s your signature trick in Big Air?
My backside 900 I had pretty dialed, and then last season I kind of lost it a little bit — my axis got a little bit weird and I started falling on it more often. I think that’s going to be a big asset for me. And then also switch back 720, there’s no other girls doing that trick.
How does that work?
I ride regular, so backside is counter-clockwise [for me]. Then if I ride goofy [switching which foot is forward as she rides down the hill], that [same counter-clockwise spin] is cab. Everyone’s kind of different, but for me the hardest direction is cab, which a lot of people think is the easiest direction. I love switch backside and it’s one of my strengths, and there’s not a ton of women who can do big tricks that way. It’s two full 360s going my unnatural direction, to the left.
That does sound unnatural.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but I like it. It’s a fun trick. It’ll score really well if I can execute it right, because no one else will be doing it. I think that’s the big thing with Big Air: if you can do tricks that not everyone’s doing, it sets you apart. You see that a lot in the men’s. Everybody does a backside triple — but how many backside triples can you watch?
Well, I wouldn’t exactly call that boring…
[Laughs.] Someone once compared it to going to a concert and listening to the band playing the same song the whole time. It’s true: it’s a good song and it’s a great band, but do you really want to hear it 10 times? We saw that in Sochi with Sage [Kotsenburg, an American], he did a super unique [slopestyle] run and they rewarded him for it [with a gold medal]. You’re seeing it more and more with the guys doing crazier grabs, the more technical tricks, trying to bring a lot more style to it. The same is true with the women.
This Canadian snowboarding team is stacked, with a ton of medal hopefuls. How come the team is so deep?
For the last eight years, the men have been so, so dominant, and honestly with the Olympic team we had in Sochi, I was thinking it’s going to be a long time until that’s replicated again, to have that many riders be a gold medal threat. And now we have more! [Laughs.] It’s just so awesome.
I think our big thing is definitely having someone like Mark [McMorris] at camps. He and the older guys, they’re friends with those younger guys and they ride with them. They allow those boys to learn with them and also push them. At team camps, those guys have such an insane dynamic. It’s sometimes hard to put yourself into it as a female rider because it’s almost like being at the top of a men’s Big Air. I’m thinking, “I’m just going to watch this time, because you guys are killing it way too hard!” But it’s so great to see that mutual respect they have for each other, and it’s also like, “Oh, he did that trick? I’m going to do this trick.” It’s just one after another, and they keep getting better and better. That whole dynamic drives the team — and it drives the whole sport of snowboarding.
And on the women’s side, I’m just so excited. We have a much bigger team this time, which is amazing. Laurie [Blouin] and Brooke [Voigt] have really stepped up. They’ve both had so much potential for so long. I think we’ll have a really strong showing across the board.
You’ve had a lot of big moments in your career, but what stands out so far as the highlight?
There are two. The first was in 2012 at the World Championships, when I won there. That was a crazy week for me. I had a massive crash and I could barely walk. I still can’t believe I snowboarded — I don’t even know how I did. It was probably the most mind-over-matter situation that I’ve ever overcome in my life. I was so up against it. They ended up having to freeze my back just so I could ride on the day of the contest. It was so bad. To have it end up being one of the best runs I’ve ever done and to have won on that day was really cool.
And then 2016 when I won X Games was a really big one for me, too. That was my 10th year in Aspen. Winning X Games has been one of my biggest goals and dreams since I was 13 years old, and I have like five other colours of medals, so it was like, “Am I going to be this person that’s constantly just second and third my whole life?” Winning that one finally was big — I was stoked about that.
How about Pyeongchang? Have you set goals for your second Olympics?
There’s a [slopestyle] run that I would like to do. I want to be pretty flexible going into these Games, especially considering how the last Games went. But I think I still have it in me to be a definite medal threat. I’d love nothing more than to bring one home to Canada. That’s the ultimate goal. And then in Big Air, I’m hoping for a big result in that one, too. I’m just excited to have two chances at a medal, and I’m excited to go to Pyeongchang with a different set of circumstances.
The Games might be more fun for you this time around, eh?
Yes. I’ll definitely be able to enjoy it a little more.
I hear you always eat a steak the night before a final. Will you do that in Pyeongchang?
I have to figure that out. I’ve got to find my steak restaurant. Might end up being Korean Barbecue, [laughs] but we’ll see what I can find.
Big Read: The oral history of the '94 Olympic hockey tournament
The last time the men's Olympic hockey tournament was played without NHLers, Team Canada was an underdog, but that didn't deter the players. Here, in their own words, is the story of that Cinderella run to silver.