Merrill Lynch's Man In Lillehammer

Connor O'Brien had a brief moment of doubt as he hurtled to the ground at 70 mph one weekend in December. Maybe he should have practiced this route a few more times, he thought. Maybe he should have taken leave from his investment-banking job to train harder. Maybe it was a dumb idea to compete as a downhill racer in the Olympics at age 32, almost 10 years after he had traded a career on the slopes for one on Wall Street. Maybe he should just quit, go home, and admit defeat....

Naw. After all, he hadn't become an Estonian citizen for nothing. Two days after his fall at Italy's Val Gardena, O'Brien, now with two broken ribs, managed to finish a race that qualified him for the Olympics--on the Estonian ski team. "Most people who move into a business career from sports never get a chance to look back," he says. "I'm not trying to relive anything. I just want another flirt with the sensation of blasting down a hill at 80 mph."

On Feb. 13, O'Brien will have that chance--in the men's downhill ski competition in Lillehammer, Norway. He'll be competing against such top teams as Austria and Norway, whose members are roughly 10 years his junior. "Connor's extremely bright," says Brent Norton, who grew up with O'Brien in Montreal. "If he sees a loophole, he'll be the first to make it work."

GLORY DAYS. Some loophole. Realizing that he was unlikely to make the U.S. team, O'Brien became a citizen of Estonia--his mother's country. He had used a similar tactic to get on the British team for the 1984 Olympics. (His father is a British subject.) It's not unheard of for athletes to switch nationality to qualify for the Olympic Games. But this year, the International Olympic Committee tightened the qualifying requirements for all events. For O'Brien, that meant racing just seconds slower than the ranking downhill racers.

With no time off work, his weekends became a precious commodity. He needed to get in as many races as possible to cut his time. After a good start in November in Park City, Utah, where he posted his best time in 10 years, the Val Gardena mishap took its toll: His ranking was a far cry from his glory days in the top 100. Even so, he made the top 500--enough to get on the Olympic team.

O'Brien's friends always knew he was daring. But when he decided last year he was going to ski in the Olympics and still keep his job as vice-president at Merrill Lynch & Co.'s energy group, people thought he had gone too far. "I thought he was joking when he first brought it up," says Rob D. Patton, managing director of the group. "It's unusual for someone in this profession to try and find the time to pursue something like this."

For O'Brien, however, it was the chance to pull just one more stunt. Like the time he aced a creative-theater course by rappelling into an eighth-floor classroom through the window.

SLOPE WORK. O'Brien has been skiing almost since he could walk. He was competing by age 8 and winning local contests by age 12. He skied with the Quebec Ski Team in 1980-81 and, as an undergraduate, with the Middlebury College team in 1982-83. His career peaked when he took third in the International Ski Federation downhill competition in 1983 and when he ranked 33rd in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo. Injuries forced him to retire after the 1985-86 season.

Fortunately, the qualities that made him a world-ranking skier translated well to Wall Street. At 23, he headed for Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck business school and from there to Lehman Brothers Inc. before landing at Merrill Lynch. The same drive helped him juggle work and training. "In Europe, I had the benefit of a six-hour time difference," he says. "I could train--and then get in sort of a workday on North American time." He would often clinch deals over his cellular phone and fax results to New York.

All of this for what? O'Brien isn't likely to rank, much less take home a medal. "If he places in the top 30, it would be an extraordinary achievement," says Steve Cohen, editor of Ski Magazine. That would be great, O'Brien replies. "But my main goal is to enjoy the whole experience and ski my best."

Afterward, it will be back to business as usual. "It will have to be, if he wants to be an investment banker," says Patton. But after broken ribs and 70-mph speeds, the life of a jet-setting, 100-hour-a-week investment banker may be a welcome relief.

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