Snowboarding opens unexpected doors for Canada's Liam Gill
CALGARY — When Liam Gill felt he didn't belong, snowboarding came to his rescue.
Diagnosed with a language processing disorder and dyslexia, Gill struggled to understand and make himself understood in school.
Toting his snowboard to Calgary's Canada Olympic Park several times a week, Gill would come off the hill buzzing with purpose.
"Growing up, school was tough," the 20-year-old said. "I never understood why I had such a hard time. I'd leave school drained. I kind of felt stupid.
"Snowboarding was a way to prove to myself that I was good at something. It was a huge outlet for me, being a kid. I had something where I felt confident and good about myself. I needed it for sure."
Gill will compete in the season-ending World Cup halfpipe in his hometown starting with Friday's qualification.
Saturday evening's final will be under the lights at WinSport's Canada Olympic Park.
When Gill competed in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing in just his second year on the national team, snowboarding opened an unexpected door for him.
The only Indigenous male on Canada's team drew the attention of that community.
Gill is a member of the Dene First Nation Liidlii Kue in the Northwest Territories. When he didn't perform the way he wanted to in Beijing, he says their support felt like a lifeline.
"That was the biggest stage I've been on," Gill said. "Kind of put me in the spotlight. I got amazing feedback even though I performed horribly.
"Even though I finished second last and I walked away with a bruised eye, I still got amazing feedback. It was what helped keep me together, because I swear I was falling apart after that second run. The amount of support I got from the Indigenous community was huge."
Gill's grandmother is from Fort Simpson, N.W.T. He went there soon after the Olympic Games to help youngsters try snowboarding and returned to do it again the following year.
"My first time, I was running up and down this hill holding hands and teaching these kids how to snowboard. The next year, I couldn't keep up with them," Gill said.
When Sunshine Ski Resort west of Banff, Alta., told Gill he could host an event of his choosing, he wanted to get children from N.W.T. there at no cost.
His mother, Joanna, began looking for grants. With the help of a legacy grant from the Canadian Olympic Committee, Gill was able to bring about 20 youngsters from Fort Smith and Fort Simpson to the resort in May 2023 for a few days of boarding instruction.
"The whole idea was just to make money not an issue, to have it fully funded and the kids to just have fun. We were able to pull it off," Gill said. "That was super life-changing for me. I've got to keep going with this. I've got to do more."
He's planning another "Liam and Friends" session at Sunshine in March, but his World Cup season isn't over yet.
WinSport's halfpipe built in 2014 is the largest in Western Canada at 6.7 metres high, 22 metres wide, 160 metres long and a vertical of 83 degrees.
Calgary was an occasional training stop for retired American snowboard legend Shaun White because of the pipe's dimensions and night lighting.
Calgary's "Snow Rodeo" was initially scheduled to include a World Cup slopestyle Sunday, but that event was called off in January.
"Due to unprecedented warm weather this winter, WinSport was unable to produce the volume of snow necessary, in the time required, to build the slopestyle course as required," WinSport said in a statement.
Gill posted a career-best eighth in January's World Cup in Laax, Switzerland. He's also nursing a sore tailbone from a crash in Sunday's men's final in Mammoth, Calif.
"I've been looking forward to this Calgary World Cup all year because it's home turf and my friends are in town and my family can watch and all this cool stuff," Gill said. "I just want to make finals."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.