'I can't really believe it': Canadian snowboarder Liam Gill making Olympic debut as last-minute replacement

Eighteen-year-old Olympic newcomer Liam Gill found out he would be competing at the Beijing Games just four days before the opening ceremony.

18-year-old is replacing injured 2-time Olympian Derek Livingston in men's halfpipe

Eighteen-year-old Olympic rookie Liam Gill found out he would be replacing veteran Derek Livingston for the halfpipe event at the Beijing Games just four days before the opening ceremony. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liam Gill's crazy week is only now just starting to sink in.

It was just four days before Friday's opening ceremony that the 18-year-old Canadian snowboarder found out he would be competing at the Beijing Olympics.

Originally selected as an alternate on the Olympic team, Gill was announced as the halfpipe replacement for veteran Derek Livingston on Jan. 31 after the two-time Olympian suffered an injury during a training run.

With less than 24 hours to get ready for the team flight, the Calgary native had to quickly shift his mindset and start preparing for the biggest moment of his career after initially thinking he would not even be flying with the team to Beijing.

"It's been, like, a week and it's slowly sinking in; I can't really believe it. It's pretty crazy and surreal," said Gill, who will make his Olympic debut with the qualifying runs Wednesday afternoon in Beijing (Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. ET).

Gill said the news initially brought mixed emotions, as Livingston is more than just a teammate to him.

"Derek has been a mentor of mine the past two years, and he has kind of brought me through the halfpipe scene. Every time I learn a trick he's there," Gill told CBC Sports. "When I heard about that, I didn't think 'oh, I've got an Olympic spot.' I was like, 'damn, my friend just broke his leg.'"

Gill said he has received an overwhelming amount of support from friends and family since the news broke, and now he is just looking forward to making them proud on the Olympic stage.

"I didn't even know that many people supported me. It's pretty cool to see. They're all super excited; I just have to put on a show, hopefully," Gill said.

Gill has always wanted to be an Olympian, but his aspirations were fuelled when he first represented Canada at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Switzerland.

"That was also a really awesome experience," Gill said. "Just getting a taste of the Youth Olympics was like  'I want to go to the real one.'"

WATCH | Snowboarder Parrot collects Canada's 1st gold medal in Beijing:

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Canadian snowboarder Sébastien Toutant reflects on winning Olympic gold in Big Air at PyeongChang 2018, his disappointing performances in Slopestyle, and his hopes for Beijing 2022.

Competing against Shaun White

Gill is the second-youngest member of Canada's snowboarding contingent behind 16-year-old Brooke D'Hondt — the youngest Canadian Olympian in Beijing.

And now he is about to compete against the biggest star in the sport's history, as American legend Shaun White is back for a fifth Olympics in his final competition before retirement.

The three-time Olympic gold medallist known as the "The Flying Tomato" made his Games debut in 2006 when Gill was just three years old. He holds the record for the most gold medals by a snowboarder at both the Olympics and X Games, having topped the Olympic halfpipe podium in 2006, 2010 and 2018.

Gill already knows how special it is to compete against the superstar.

"I've been doing World Cups this season and Shaun White has been there, and It's like "wow, I'm really competing against Shaun White,'" Gill said, adding it will be "pretty special" to be involved in the closing chapter of White's historic career.

Gill gets air while training for the men's halfpipe event on Sunday in Zhangjiakou, China. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But even more special for Gill is who he gets to be teammates with in Beijing.

He said he didn't originally grow up as a halfpipe fan and was much more interested in following the accomplishments of current Olympic teammate Mark McMorris — who recently captured slopestyle bronze for the third straight Games.

A legend in his own right, McMorris broke White's record for most overall X Games medals in 2020. Gill's Beijing teammates accounted for four of Canada's medals at the 2018 Olympics, and he is loving every moment being teammates with the riders he grew up admiring.

"It's pretty crazy getting to spend time with these guys," Gill said. "I watched them on TV when I was younger, and now I'm on the Canada team with them. It's pretty crazy."

WATCH | Replay of men's slopestyle final at Beijing 2022:

Representing his heritage

As a member of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., Gill is the only Indigenous member of Canada's Olympic snowboard team, and just one of three Indigenous athletes competing for Canada in Beijing.

"It means a lot to represent my heritage, and I think it's very important to hopefully inspire kids back in Canada to get involved in sports and find something to do and find a passion," Gill said.

While feeling the pressure of the moment on the Olympic stage is natural, Gill is entering the competition feeling like he has nothing to lose after already reaching such an important milestone.

"Of course every competition I'm nervous, but I feel like I've already kind of accomplished something just by being here," Gill said. "I don't feel too pressured as maybe like Shaun White and them because they're expected to get medals and stuff. I just want to put a run down."

Gill will be the lone Canadian competing when the men's halfpipe qualification runs get underway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 8. There will be 25 riders, with the top 12 advancing to the final.

It will also feature reigning world champion Yuto Totsuka of Japan, and his compatriot Ayumu Hirano — the two-time defending Olympic silver medallist.

Switzerland's Jan Scherrer is returning for his third Olympics after winning halfpipe bronze at the world championships last year, while 2018 Olympic bronze medallist Scotty James of Australia is also competing.

All the action will be streamed live on CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app and CBC Sports' Beijing 2022 website.

Canada has won five gold and 13 medals overall in Olympic snowboarding.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Returning Champions series - Sébastien Toutant:

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