Canada's Éliot Grondin snags snowboard cross silver medal in photo finish
20-year-old completes turnaround from early elimination at 2018 Olympics
Canada's Éliot Grondin is familiar with Austrian snowboard cross competitor Alessandro Haemmerle, having spent plenty of time together on the World Cup tour.
The two were reacquainted on the Olympic stage on Thursday in Beijing, when Grondin was forced to settle for silver in a photo finish behind Haemmerle at the Genting Snow Park. Italy's Omar Visintin rounded out the podium with bronze.
"Pretty unreal. I don't even realize it yet I think, just to be on the podium here at 20 years old," Grondin told CBC Sports after the race.
The Sainte-Marie, Que., native was competing at his second Olympics after being eliminated in the 1/8 final four years ago in Pyeongchang when he was just 16.
WATCH | Grondin edged by Haemmerle at finish line:
The story was much different this time around, as Grondin posted the fastest qualifying time in the field and won each of his first three knockout-round races without ever so much as trailing.
He even beat Haemmerle in the semifinals, surging to the lead out of the gates and through the first part of the course before controlling the pack from the front, just as he had all day.
Edged at finish line
However, Haemmerle, in his third Olympics at 28 years old, may have learned something riding from behind Grondin in that race. Grondin, on the other hand, said he's learned plenty from his elder Austrian counterpart over their years together on tour.
"Earlier this season we spent a lot of time in Europe. It gets harder mentally, and he just invited me over for a night like cooking food. He's just a good friend of mine and to be able to battle a few rounds with him and be super tight and super clean racing is so fun," Grondin said.
In the big final, Grondin once again took the early lead. But Haemmerle made his move about midway down the track, and never let his Canadian pupil past.
Grondin did manage to make some headway on the final jump. He eventually slid with his snowboard up at the finish line next to Haemmerle to force the photo finish.
But Haemmerle ultimately won gold by two-hundredths of a second.
"I kind of knew I was going to be silver, but I tried everything I had," Grondin said. "Just to share the podium with Alessandro is amazing."
It's the second medal in snowboard cross in as many days for a Canadian after Meryeta O'Dine took bronze in the women's race.
WATCH | O'Dine takes bronze in women's race:
It's also Canada's sixth medal ever in the sport, with Grondin becoming the second man to reach the podium by matching Mike Robertson's 2010 silver. Maëlle Ricker collected the country's lone Olympic gold medal in the sport in Vancouver.
Two other Canadians also competed in Beijing, but Kevin Hill of Vernon, B.C., and Liam Moffatt of Truro, N.S., were both eliminated in the 1/8 final.
The 35-year-old Hill suggested after the race that this would be his final Olympics after competing in three Games.
'I can't believe it'
Grondin, meanwhile, is just getting started.
"My first Olympic Games was in 2018. I was 16, like no expectations from my side over there. And the last few years, just the momentum that I've been carrying, all the experience, being on the podium last year a lot and winning my first World Cup I think was a big boost of confidence," he said.
"And to leave here with a medal, it's unreal. I can't believe it."
Grondin emerged on the international scene ahead of Beijing, taking bronze at the 2021 world championships and gold at the world juniors.
He won his first-ever World Cup event less than a year ago in Bakuriani, Georgia.
Now, he's an Olympic silver medallist. And his career is just taking off.
"I'm racing guys that are almost 30 years old, and I'm just 20. So they've been on the tour for so many more years than I have. So just getting to race more with those guys in a big final, getting the experience for sure it helps a lot."
"And now I feel like I'm part of those big guys."
WATCH | Full replay of men's snowboard cross finals:
With files from The Canadian Press