Showjumping's loss is skiing's gain in Connor Wilson


South Africa will be represented by a one-man band in Connor Wilson at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, though the Summer Games could have hosted him had he stuck with his childhood love of horse riding.

SA champion Alpine skier Wilson, 21, fought off competition from Sive Speelman to claim the country's one competition spot available in South Korea. Both qualified but Wilson, by virtue of having the better international record between the pair, was the competitor selected.

Wilson, who studies veterinary science at the University of Vermont, was one of the better schoolboy equestrians in South Africa in his teens, but his love of the slopes, which he discovered while living in the US as a child, took precedence and he decided to focus fully on skiing, winning a scholarship to study in the United States.

"I used to be a big show jumper and I did consider very seriously pursuing the sport to try and win a place at the Olympics," Wilson tells KweséESPN, after a long -- and delayed -- journey to PyeongChang.

"But my horse got Navicular syndrome, which is a pretty serious disease, and it would take a couple of years of recovery. So that was when I decided to see where I could get in my ski career. That was one of the factors that pushed me in this direction."

Training is easy enough when he's in the US during term time, at the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, and he's built a solid gameplan that allows for time on the slopes and in the books.

"It is pretty much a daily routine but I have tried to organise myself around my classes to find the time to be on the slopes," he says.

"We can kind of make up our own schedule, so every Wednesday to Friday I have classes in the afternoon and train from 07h00 to 11h30 on the mountain, which is about 45 minutes away from campus."

When he's home in Johannesburg though, he has to travel a long way to the mountains of Lesotho, where he trains at the Afriski Mountain Resort under Swiss coach Cedric Maret. While it's demanding, he experiences a shift in conditions more extreme than most, which keeps him mentally sharp.

"What makes the sport interesting for me is that the conditions always change," he adds. "Every hill is different, the weather is always different. Through this you grow a lot of respect for the sport and it makes you very quickly understand just how good you have to be.

"It's certainly not easy. A lot of the time it is not pleasant out there and you wonder why you take part. But I guess overcoming that is what makes you into an Olympic athlete."

Wilson placed admirably at the 2017 Alpine World Ski Championships in St Moritz last February, the biggest event outside of the Winter Olympics. He finished 49th out of 135 competitors in the Slalom qualifier and 54th out of 107 in the Giant Slalom final.

"Connor is a very good competitor; he is quite natural on the slopes," Peter Pilz, the president of Snow Sports South Africa and Wilson's manager, tells KweséESPN.

"His problem is the same as for all South African skiers, that the chances to train and compete regularly overseas are limited, and that hinders development.

"We have made great progress in recent years in terms of holding competitions in South Africa. Just last year we had over 80 international competitors from 18 different nations come to race at Tiffindell [Ski Resort in the Drakensburg].

"That kind of exposure is helpful to our local skiers as well because they can compete with these international skiers and see what is required to be successful."

Because of the challenges he faces, from studying a demanding degree to fewer competitive opportunities than northern hemisphere athletes, Wilson is realistic about his PyeongChang chances.

He's looking to justify his selection ahead of Speelman -- which caused some controversy -- by keeping up with the pack, but doesn't imagine he'll be in the running for a podium place.

"There is a lot of pressure on me to do well, but I have trained hard for this. I feel ready to do the best I can. I feel I'm in good position to compete," he says.

"I can't say that I am hoping to win a medal -- that is reaching a little bit too far in terms of goals --- but I am certainly going to do my best. To finish in a respectable position that is pretty close to the lead would be a great achievement for me."