"If there are more female coaches around and available to cultivate these young athletes and especially help young girls see that they can be successful too, it can make a huge difference."
Calynn Irwin is an Olympic half-pipe snowboarder and all-around rad person. At the ripe age of 16, Calynn started her career with a bang participating in her first World Cup, and finished it off by competing at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. Now, she’s trading in her snowboard for home renovating (more on that later), and crushing another male-dominated field. Let’s get to our interview with Calynn.
Lexie at The GIST (TG): Snowboarding! As a Torontonian! How did you first get into the sport?
Calynn Irwin (CI): I grew up in a family of ski racers at Georgian Peaks in Collingwood, ON. My grandparents were members of the club, so all of my family and extended family were members there as well. I grew up skiing at first and I think I just got bored ski-racing and just doing the same thing over and over again (nothing against ski racing!). I remember noticing a bunch of snowboarders in the park nearby where no skis (only snowboards) were allowed. So at eight years old, I started skipping ski lessons, found a snowboard at the rental shop and started to teach myself snowboarding by watching the older kids. I think I just about gave my parents a heart attack from skipping lessons… the instructors would tell them to just look for me in the park, and that’s where they would find me.
I always had an obsession with the Olympics growing up, and as soon as 1998 Nagano Olympics introduced snowboarding, I turned to my parents and said, “that’s what I’ll go to the Olympics for.” I saw it, and I knew it was possible.
c/o of Calynn’s Instagram @caleventures
TG: And you did! So amazing. Okay, so the rumour is that you’re done competing. Is that true? What are you up to now?
CI: Yes, it’s true. I’m in school full-time right now studying home renovation and project management at George Brown in Toronto. I’m also working for a contractor doing home renovations when I have time…it’s fun to still do something physical and creative.
I always liked art and building things growing up, and a couple of summers ago my dad and I built a small cabin up at our cottage. I really liked that, and in my off-seasons I started working with different contractors. Then in June, after I retired I decided to go to school for home renovation. It’s weird being back at school. Some of my classmates and friends are about 18-years-old. *Calynn laughs*
With sports and snowboarding, I’m so passionate, and I kind of felt that same spark of passion from building things as I do when I play sports, so it’s really nice. It also made me realize that you can have more than one passion.
TG: That’s really great that you’ve found another passion, but I’m sure it was still difficult to retire from snowboarding. What was that process like?
CI: It was hard, I definitely got sad. At the end of the day, it was the right choice to make. I remember when I made the decision to retire: it was last October while I was at a training camp in Switzerland. I just kept getting hurt. On the first day I hurt my neck. So I wasn’t snowboarding much there. Then, I watched two of my friends get airlifted off the mountain doing tricks that I didn’t even want to try, but knew if I wanted to stay relevant and compete with all of the young talent coming up, I would eventually have to try them. So seeing my friends, and knowing I would have to try tricks like that, I really wasn’t getting fired up to snowboard like I used to.
My injury ended up sidelining me all season. I maybe went out three times. It turns out it was actually a concussion. But yeah, I was sidelined basically the whole season while watching people get injured doing tricks that I didn’t want to try. So I had a decision to make — do I want to be able to play sports with my friends when I’m my parents age, or do I want to go on for another four years and potentially have a worse injury come along? I just had to think about the quality of life I wanted for the rest of my life. It comes to a point where you have to decide if the risk outweighs the reward.
TG: Wow, that’s great perspective, but obviously easier said than done to actually make that decision...
CI: Yeah, for sure. So a little bit more on my background — I actually had a concussion when I was 17 that completely took me out of sports for two years. And at that time, they didn’t really know much about concussions, and the doctors thought I probably wouldn’t be able to compete in snowboarding again. That experience forced me to find other things that I’m interested in and not be so solely focused on snowboarding. In turn, when I did get back into snowboarding, it helped me have a nice balance in my life, and not put so much emphasis on this one sport.
I see so many kids picking one sport and pushing themselves so hard in only that, but I think it’s so important to play a variety of different sports, and do different things to have a balance. Because if it comes to a point where you can’t participate in the main sport you grew up with, then you’ll at least have found other things that bring positivity to your life.
My goal in the future is to work with kids and help create more balance. I want to inspire people, especially young girls, to stay active, and that doesn’t mean just in one sport.
TG: That’s awesome, Calynn! You’ve overcome a lot, but what would you say is maybe the most “un-glorious” side of being an Olympian the average person doesn’t see?
CI: In my sport specifically, our runs are less than 30-seconds long. And we have two runs so a total of 60-seconds. And that’s what everyone sees. And, for someone like me, I fell on both of my runs at the Olympics. So it’s difficult because whenever someone hears you’re an Olympian they automatically say “how’d you do?” or “did you win a medal?” — that’s the question I get asked all the time. You know, someone once told me that your chance of making the Olympics is something like one in a million. So then winning a medal, the odds of that are…I don’t even know. But no one sees what you go through to get there.
I was at a wedding and this guy sitting next to me said, “Oh you’re an Olympian? Did you have fun?” And I said, “Yeah, I had the best time ever. I’m really proud and so thankful to represent Canada.” And he asked, “How’d you do? Did you win a medal?” And I said, “No, I fell on both of my runs, but I’m really proud just to have made it there.” And he said, “How could you be proud of that? Were your parents there? Were they proud?” And I said, “Yeah, I think that’s the most proud they’ve ever been.” And he said, “How could they be proud of you falling at the Olympics?”
And I...I took the deepest breath ever, and I just said, “Well, I’m proud of myself because for the last 15-20 years all I’ve been working toward is to be at the Olympics, and my parents were proud of me because they’ve seen every up and, more importantly, every down along the way that I went through just to be able to stand at the top of that half-pipe…” and then I told him he was being rude and I was going to politely remove myself from the conversation.
So, yeah, that’s the toughest part. Those types of questions from people who don’t understand what it takes to actually get there.
TG: Oh my gosh, that’s actually so wild he said that. You were so patient with him. Kudos. So, snowboarding is traditionally a male-dominated sport… do you see that changing?
CI: When I first started on the provincial team it was all guys. I’ve never even had a female coach…that definitely needs to change. It’s huge! Having female coaches is a big, big, BIG deal because if little girls only see male coaches and male athletes doing well in their sport, it’s not a very promising outlook for their future.
While I have had some amazing male coaches, if there are more female coaches around and available to cultivate these young athletes and especially help young girls see that they can be successful too, it can make a huge difference. It would also help young female athletes have role models to relate to — growing up with all guys was really tough, I do wish I had more female coaches and teammates around. And now, you just hear such bad stories about, for lack of a better term, “locker room talk,” and as a young girl that made me feel not great, so I really hope to see some changes.
It’s still like that today in the half-pipe world. Right now, there’s only one girl on the national team, but I know there are tons of girls that want to try it. There are a lot of barriers, and not just for young girls...
Half-pipe developed so quickly as a sport. When I first started riding half-pipe, the walls were 16-feet high. Now, they’re 22-feet high. So as the walls got bigger, all of these ski clubs that had 16-feet half-pipes just got rid of them. So there aren’t a lot of places for kids to learn the sport because there aren’t even half-pipes on the hills. There’s actually only one 22 ft. half-pipe and it’s in Calgary. The Canadian Olympic Park in Calgary also has a mini-pipe for kids to learn on that’s about 6-feet.
Because, that’s the other thing, it’s really tough for kids to learn on something that’s basically eight-times their size. You wouldn’t send a six-year-old off of that. It’s so intimidating! When I was training in Calgary, I’d see all of the little kids learning on the mini-pipe, and it was awesome, there were about 50 of them, and they just looked like little blobs on their snowboards, they were just so pumped up. I wish that other provinces and ski resorts could see that, and see how excited these kids are. It’s such a small thing, but so valuable in terms of getting kids to try the sport.
TG: That’s really interesting, and unfortunate. Do you see Sport Canada or any governing body ever stepping in to help?
CI: It’s tough because with all winter sports...especially snow sports that involve mountains like skiing and snowboarding, you’re a bit at the mercy of weather, and now that we’ve kind of entered into this time period with climate change where sometimes a resort might not even have enough snow to make a half-pipe, it’s really challenging.
These are all man-made, so the cost of that is enormous, and it’s tough foreseeing anyone fork over that kind of money. And that’s not to say that half-pipe is a dying sport by any means, but it will definitely become a sport you’ll have to go to specific places to access a good facility.
TG: Very true. Okay, let’s end on some fun, rapid-fire questions!
TG: What is your favourite TV show of all-time?
TG: And what are you binge watching right now?
CI: This Is Us… lots of feelings!
TG: You’re a huge Toronto sports fan, but if you had to pick only one Toronto team to watch, which one would you pick?
CI: Okay, that’s like the hardest question I’ve ever been asked…I’ll have to say the Toronto Blue Jays!
TG: If the Toronto Maple Leafs got their own team dog, what would you name it?
TG: LOVE that! If there’s a movie made about your life, who would play you?
CI: Anna Kendrick.
TG: What is the most embarrassing song you know every word to?
CI: “Baby Shark” *Calynn chuckles*