O’Brien’s special family bond keeps her going
The adaptive athlete has relationship with BYU football star
Saylor O’Brien’s parents wanted to make sure she had a hobby growing up. Born with spina bifida, O’Brien was slapped into a pair of ski boots when she was a toddler. She’d click into her skis almost every day. But instead of heading to the mountain, O’Brien started with baby steps.
“I would just watch TV all day long,” O’Brien, now 13 years old, said. “[I was] just standing in the boots. It just kind of grew on me.”
So much so that since her first day on the slopes at 4 years old, O’Brien’s love for skiing has grown tenfold.
“As I grew up more and more, I thought this is my sport,” she said. “This is what I’m born to do. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.”
O’Brien started as a four-track skier, where she used adaptive outriggers to help balance and steer her turns instead of holding the traditional ski poles.
But after developing a love for the speed and thrill of racing, it was suggested that she switch over to using a mono ski, which contains a bucket seat on a metal chassis shock mounted on a single alpine ski with hand outriggers for balance. She heeded the advice of her instructors and recently made the transition.
So far, it’s been a welcome change.
“It’s actually going really well, because I think I like mono skiing better than when I was doing four tracking…a lot better” O’Brien said. “It’s been going really well. I’ve been progressing a lot faster than I even expected.”
Her success, which included a third-place giant slalom finish in the Huntsman Cup on Tuesday in her first-ever International Paralympic Committee (IPC) sanctioned event, is not by accident. O’Brien not only hits the slopes hard, but also the gym, where she performs workouts typically before and after she skis.
Her workout regime is ever-changing. One day she’ll do three sets of 50 sit-ups. The next, she’ll do four sets of planks. Other days, she focuses entirely on her upper-body strength or performs all of the above as she attempts to stay in top shape.
She’s a hard-worker, no doubt, but none of this would be possible if not for her family, O’Brien said.
“My family is definitely one of those big motivators that keeps me going,” O’Brien said.
The family consists of O’Brien; her parents, Audrey and Nate; and her siblings, Storie, Stockton, Saylor, Knox and Jack. These days, they live in Heber, but the family used to live down the canyon in Lehi, a place where skiing isn’t easily accessible.
When they lived in Lehi, O’Brien and company would make the hour-long trek to Park City, where O’Brien got heavily involved with the National Ability Center. If not for her family’s willingness to travel, she may never have gotten into the sport that she loves so much.
“It took a long time and so it was a lot of time spent,” O’Brien said.
But O’Brien didn’t just receive support from her immediate family. There’s one unofficial member of the family, and a popular sports figure in the state of Utah, that O’Brien has recently clicked with.
“I do have an older brother, who’s sort of adopted,” O’Brien said. “He used to play football for BYU. He just graduated.”
O’Brien’s adopted brother is Jamaal Williams.
It wasn’t long ago that former BYU running back Williams was gashing through defenses as a fan-favorite in Provo. Before he became the most well-known player for the Cougars, however, he came into the program without knowing many people.
Back when he was just a freshman, Williams was introduced to the O’Brien family at the annual Thursday’s Hero Reunion that BYU used to hold. What started as simply keeping one another company throughout the dinner turned into a dinner invitation at the O’Brien household. After that, it turned into a bi-weekly occurrence. Then, a weekly one.
Soon enough, Williams was over there every single day, indulging in food and good times, which included the most epic of Xbox battles.
“I always end up winning,” O’Brien bragged.
Williams didn’t deny the claim.
“We mostly played Mortal Kombat, because it’s easy for her to press buttons,” Williams said. “I play video games all the time, but I don’t have mercy on anybody. She learned the hard way. She started to get good at it, honestly. She beat me a couple of times with sleepers. She slept me because I underestimated her.”
Williams was the first person that O’Brien mentioned when asked about her siblings. Not to belittle any of the other relationships she has with her other siblings (her little brothers are her biggest motivation), but what she has with Williams is special, she said. O’Brien genuinely thinks of him as an older brother.
Williams also feels a kinship with O’Brien.
“That’s my sister,” Williams said when asked about O’Brien.
Williams, BYU’s record-holder in career rushing yards, is currently preparing for the NFL Draft and just recently finished up practices at the Senior Bowl, where he impressed many NFL scouts. He’s not a top prospect, but many are already touting the former Cougar as a potential steal in the upcoming draft.
But despite all this, Williams doesn’t think he’s the biggest star in the family. That title belongs to O’Brien.
“Honestly, I tell her all the time that she’s the real superstar in the family,” Williams said. “I tell her she’s the most athletic person I know because I know I can’t ski even right now. It’s just something I know that I can’t do. I just look at her and I’m just amazed and motivated by her to see her doing something great.
“It makes me work harder and makes me just want to be a better brother for her and try to be a role model. But at the same time, we both motivate each other.”
O’Brien hopes to use her this motivation from Williams and the rest of her family to finish this season strong. She also has her eyes set on the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing.
“It is a very big goal for me,” O’Brien said. “I’m super excited. I’ve really been holding on to this dream for quite awhile.”
The 13-year-old still has five years to work toward that goal, but no matter what happens, she’ll always have a fan, and brother, in Williams.
“Not a lot of people I know have gone to the [Paralympics],” Williams said. “Just to know that my little sister is on her way to going there, she’s already surpassed me.
“She’s as humble as anybody I know. She’s as kind as anybody I know. She’s the last person to throw her accomplishments in anybody’s face. That’s what I really like about her. She’s always kind, genuine and a sweetheart.”
O’Brien certainly hasn’t been alone in her endeavors with help from her blood-related family to long-time instructors to Williams. Whenever she is feeling down or upset or frustrated with training, she’s had a number of people close to help her raise her spirits.
Sometimes, though, she needs to use a little bit of self-motivation in order to get through.
“Never give up,” O’Brien said. “Never. Never ever. I can remember plenty of times during training where I was struggling. … I just kept saying, ‘Never give up. I’ve got to do this. This is what’s going to keep me going. I have to.’ So, I just kept going. If I keep going, I’m going to get stronger.”
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