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Olympic hero Meryeta O'Dine comes home to Prince George

Two-time Beijing Olympics snowboard cross medalist greeted by hundreds of her fans at Canada Games Plaza reception
Virginia O'Dine, the proud mom of two-time Olympic bronze medallist Meryeta O'Dine of Prince George, swoops in for a selfie on the stage at a community celebration Saturday in Canada Games Plaza.

Just before two-time Beijing Olympics snowboard cross bronze medalist Meryeta O’Dine walked on the stage at Canada Games Plaza for Saturday’s Olympic Celebration it started to snow, as if on cue to set the scene for the hundreds of people who came there to meet one of the city’s winter sports legends.

When it came Meryeta’s turn to address the crowd, she kept her speech short and to the point, hoping it might inspire future Olympians to become the best they can be, despite the obstacles they’re sure to encounter.

“I would say the biggest lessons that I’ve ever learned throughout every single year, every hardship, every time you come home and think maybe this year might be the last year, you can always prove to yourself that there’s so much more to reach for,” she said.

“There’s always going to be people that will ty to slow you down and say, ‘You know what, that’s way too different, maybe you should try for a real career.’ And all I can say is, suck it. Follow your dreams and work hard and you can achieve anything that you want.”

That brought a roar from the crowd who were there for Meryeta’s homecoming. For most of the people it was there first chance to see her face-to-face after watching on their screens her magical performances half a world away in Beijing, where she was the ultimate underdog. The 25-year-old O’Dine flew under the radar of all the medal prognosticators and put Prince George on the world map under the intense glare of the Olympic spotlight.

Meryeta brought joy to her hometown on Feb. 10 when she won bronze in the women’s individual snowboard cross event. Two days later, in the first-ever Olympic team snowboard cross event, she achieved her legendary status when she teamed up with Eliot Grondin of Quebec and got wiped out halfway through her big final run when Italian Caterina Carpano went sideways and landed on her. Shaken but undeterred, Meryeta bear-hopped to climb the berm and crossed the finish in third place for another medal.

It's one of those, remember where-you-were-at-that-time events that will surely live forever in Prince George sports history.

“I’m here to support Meryeta,” said 11-year-old Brooklyn Zanolini. “Seeing her race got me more inspired to be better at snowboarding.

“This is my second year of snowboarding and I don’t race but she’s inspiring me to do that, to race, and beat him,” she said, while looking at her nine-year-old brother Brayden.

Six-year-old Mira Yang is a skier, not a snowboarder, but she wanted to meet Meryeta.

“I’m proud of her because she won the medal,” said Yang.

The lineup for autographs and photos and the chance to share a medal moment with Meryeta stretched the length of plaza. Miley Yang was there with her friends holding a new snowboard waiting to meet her new Olympic hero to ask her to sign it.

“I think it’s very special because she’s the first medalist that comes from Prince George and I feel like I’m more connected to her because she went to China for the Olympics and we all come from China,” said Yang. “Before she left for China I was following her on Facebook and it looks like she hasn’t been home for at least six months, so I’m very happy and thrilled for her at the same time.  

“I don’t race, I’m an intermediate player and I’m planning on putting a piece of tape over where she signs it just to protect it, because if I snowboard I don’t want to ruin it.”

O’Dine’s mom, Virginia, addressed the crowd before Meryeta was introduced and talked about the years she spent racing BMX bikes before she discovered snowboard cross. Meryeta has a background as an alpine skier, having grown at Tabor Mountain, a resort her step-father Fern Thibault owned. Introduced as an Olympic sport in 2006, snowboard cross grew in prominence at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where North Vancouver’s Maelle Ricker won the women’s gold medal and Mike Robertson of Edmonton claimed the men’s silver medal. The year before that, 13-year-old Meryeta started snowboarding with Tabor’s Anti-Gravity Crew and joined the RBC Riders Tour, racing at Smithers, Powder King and Tabor and soon competed in her FIS-sanctioned event at Big White.

She continued to do well in provincial races and in 2015 she and Evan Bichon of Prince George were the gold medalists at the Canada Winter Games when they conquered the course built at Tabor Mountain. Meryeta went on to win the Nor-Am season championship and junior national title in 2016. She began racing World Cups in 2017 and in 2018 had first podium finish, winning bronze in Feldberg, Germany.

During her speech, Virginia gave a plug to Bichon and Colby Graham of Prince George, who have been competing in Europe all season, alongside Meryeta on the World Cup snowboard cross tour.

“When  first moved here in 1998 I became heavily involved in sports and the arts,” Virginia told the crowd. “I had two little kids in tow… and everywhere I went I was told the same thing. If  you want to get good at what you do, to be successful and make a career out of what you love, you have to leave Prince George. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want my kids to grow up with that feeling of ‘why bother,’ because of the limitations of where we live. Our kids don’t need to feel like that.

“Prince George has proven over and over again, that with the amazing people and our amazing  resources, if we want something to happen we can make it happen.”

Saturday’s event was also a salute to the two Beijing Olympic biathletes from northern B.C., Sarah Beaudry of Prince George and Emily Dickson of Burns Lake, whose World Cup training schedule would not allow them time to come to back to Prince George for the city’s celebration.

Virginia talked about having to stay home and not traveling to Beijing because of the pandemic-related spectator ban and what it was like for her to watch the qualifying round for the women’s singles event. In 2018 at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Meryeta was there with the Canadian team but didn’t make it to the qualifying stage when she fell in a training run and suffered a concussion that knocked her out of the competition. So when Virginia gathered two weeks ago with her friends at the Westwood Pub and saw Meryeta qualify third-quickest time, much of the pressure of being an athlete’s mom was lifted because right then she knew her daughter was officially an Olympian.

“I was a nervous wreck, my daughter was racing in one of the most exciting and one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympic Games and I’m not even excited, I’m  terrified, because I don’t want to see my daughter hurt again,” she said. “So my favourite moment, the most meaningful for me, was hours before the first race began. During the time trials, each rider comes down the course by themselves trying to set a good time and it’s an important step because it sets up the race structure, and if you crash and smash your face you’re out the Olympics.

“So I watched her come down that massive Olympic course, riding confidently and aggressively, and then she charged through that finish line with the third-fastest time of all the women, surprising everyone but herself. That’s the moment that stands out for me

“For me, whether or not she came home with a medal. That’s when I knew she didn’t just overcome all of her battles from the past four years, but in that crazy high-pressure moment she set everything aside an held on to only what made her stronger. She’d been through hell watch in her brother (Brandon) die from cancer and I saw from her in that moment, she was going to be OK.”