Parental pride to shine at Olympics

Judy and Ben Hoy display a trophy son Drew Neilson won at a snowboard event. They will watch him participate in the Winter Games.

Help get his ski equipment on. Throw a bag lunch and some colouring books in the town hall and Judy Hoy and her four kids were good to go for a fun-filled day at Silver Star Mountain Resort.

Hoy figured her youngest, Drew Neilson, would never stop loving snow. Decades later and she is counting the days until he races in snowboard cross Feb. 15 at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

“He used to use little fish-scale skis and he would fall face-first into the snow and he would get up laughing,” said Hoy, who through a Petro-Canada Canadian Athlete Family Program, will attend the Olympics for five days with her husband Ben.

“He was always smiling. He would talk to anybody. He loved people. He became a good skier very quickly. When he did something, he put everything into it. Failure is not acceptable with Drew.”

Judy has only seen Drew, now 35, compete at one event. Ben has never watched Drew.

“I think it’s crucial to an athlete if they don’t have to worry about their parents getting to an (Olympic) event,” said Judy, a retired Okanagan College employee. “They aren’t focussed if they have to worry about finding tickets. We find our way to Vancouver and they (Petro-Canada) take us to the Listel Hotel and get us tickets. We are thrilled.”

Added Ben, Drew’s step-dad: “We couldn’t afford to go to Turin (Olympics) so I really appreciate Petro-Canada, who are doing this for 500 families.”

The program includes up to four nights of accommodations, meals and tickets to watch their loved ones compete.

Judy says Drew switched from skiing to snowboarding at age 12. Boarders, at the time, were “the curse of the mountain.”

Judy and Ben helped Drew out with entry fees at various competitions and he soon started coming home with loads of trophies and snowboards. He moved to Whistler for year-round training at 18.

“Then he started winning $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 for an event. People were asking me when he was going to do something else with his life, but he won $250,000 one year, and how many people can say they did that?”

In 1997, Judy took in the Whistler Nintendo comp and Drew pocketed his first pro trophy, handing it to her with a big smile. He has won scores of international races since and was a gold-medal favourite in Turin, where 20 seconds in, he was taken out by a Polish rider who had lost an edge.

“He was the fastest qualifying in Turin so that was tough,” said Judy. “This is his last hurrah; age is going against him.”

Mom said Drew played plenty of team sports as a kid, enjoying the competitive nature of rugby, soccer and basketball.

He also mountain biked. In school, “he was a very good B student. He was very bright.”

“He’s able to focus on the minute,” said Judy.

“He hates the events overseas when there are waits. He wants to do the competition and get out. Delays and waiting bring him down. It’s not his pysche.”

The youngest of four siblings, Drew was only three when his father, Lew Neilson, died in a hang gliding accident in Vernon. Lew is in the Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame as a Canadian hang gliding and C class sedan race car champion.

“He did ask questions about his dad and I think Drew missed not having a man in his life,” said Judy. “When Ben came on the scene, it was a male influence and I think it was an important thing. Amy (Drew’s wife) has been really supportive. She’s basically a single mom (of two young children) when Drew’s competing.”

The family grew up near Okanagan Lake so had a power boat and the kids did knee boarding and water skiing tricks.

“Drew was a real water boy,” said Judy. “He was a very strong swimmer. He crawled into the water once and smiled when he came to the surface. He was self-taught. He swam under water before he actually swam (on top).”

While Judy and Ben have been unable to follow Drew’s snowboard journey around the world, they are stoked about being at Cypress Mountain for the Winter Games.

“I’m dreaming about him coming across the finish line first,” said Judy, 67.

Ben, whose own son, Calvin, introduced Drew and brother Wade to freestyle skiing one year, will cherish the Olympic moment medal or not.

“We’re very proud of what he’s accomplished and if he could podium in the Olympics, it would be icing on the cake,” said Ben, 72, a former financial advisor. “We will absolutely not put any pressure on him whatsoever.”

Besides Wade, a 39-year-old graphic designer in Victoria, Drew will draw cheering from sister Karen, 46, an X-ray tech in Saanich, and Craig, 44, a university teacher in Japan.