Ghana's skiing Snow Leopard prepares for Olympics

Published January 28, 2010

| AP

GENEVA (AP) — The Snow Leopard of Ghana is going to race in Alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics. Seriously.

Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, the self-taught, self-funded, one-man team from West Africa has made it to Vancouver at age 35 after years of dedication to an improbable dream.

"It's like crossing the Sahara desert and getting to the end and getting a very cold drink and a lovely cold shower," he told The Associated Press.

"You think about, 'Wow, did I make that journey?' Man, how did I make it?"

Kwame faithfully proved his skill and determination in a true embodiment of Olympic ideals, said the International Ski Federation, which confirmed his starting spot this week.

First, by learning to ski on artificial snow at an indoor dome in England, then by earning race points in little-known events from Iceland to Iran, and Argentina to Bosnia.

He came back for more after failing on the brink of qualifying for the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Now, Kwame will race in slalom and giant slalom on the same Whistler Mountain slope as Bode, Benni, Aksel and the rest. His story will likely become one of the best-known and most-told at the Vancouver Games.

However, the first Ghanaian Olympic skier insists he is not the second coming of Michael "Eddie" Edwards, the hapless British ski-jumper and comical cult hero at the 1988 Calgary Games.

"I am not, and will not end up being, an 'Eddie the Eagle' at the end of the day," Kwame said, "because to me sports is a serious thing."

Kwame persuaded his wife Sena to share a dream that took six years to realize.

"I am kind of bullheaded," he said in a telephone interview from his training base at Pampeago, Italy. "When I focus on something and calculate it can be done, even if I don't have the resources or people tell me it can't be done, I want to find out for myself."

Kwame pursued his pro ski career while Sena stayed at home in Milton Keynes, England, working as a college administrator and bringing up their 6-year-old daughter Ellice and 1-year-old boy Jason with the help of extended family.

"Right now, she thinks it is really fantastic," the Snow Leopard said of his mate. "Now she knows it was possible."

What would have been impossible was gatecrashing the Olympics on enthusiasm alone.

The International Olympic Committee tightened qualification rules after Edwards landed on Calgary's big show, so Kwame plowed on through skiing's minor leagues.

Kwame planted his skis on race snow at Vol Thorens, France, in February 2005. Last to start in a blizzard wearing bib No. 111, he was last of 68 finishers in a two-run giant slalom, trailing by more than a minute.

He was last one week later in Shemshak, Iran, and in nine more races — always finishing both runs, never crashing out — before placing 74th of 81 at Courchevel, France.

His routine became summers of odd jobs in England and winters in Pampeago, where the tourist office took up his cause. Four years after his Turin near-miss, Kwame has "my band of merry men" — including a coach, manager, physiotherapist and Web guru — for the final push to Whistler.

"There is no funding to pay anyone," he said. "These guys have left their day jobs and are pursuing the Olympic dream with me."

Coach Denis Grigorev teaches at the Dubai ski dome and is a friend from the racing circuit, and Kwame concedes to having "some really bad habits. I don't think there's enough time for my coach to rectify them."

After daily double-duty in training, Kwame's work continues in dealing with sponsors, suppliers and contacts in Canada.

He needs a four-bedroom apartment in Whistler to house his support team and family, including his parents, Peter, a university professor, and Gladys from Cape Coast, Ghana.

"I think I owe these few people," said Kwame, who will have Grigorev and manager Richard Harpham with him in the Olympic athletes' village.

The Ghana ski team is scheduled to leave Saturday and begin 10 days of training at Vancouver Island — funded by his fans there and, notably, not the Ghanaian Olympic Committee.

Kwame, the president of Ghana's ski federation, is diplomatically silent about his country's sports officialdom. At least until he is assured of being flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.

"What I know from the Olympics is that the athlete carries the flag — unless the representative from the Ghana Olympic Committee decides to fight over the flag with me," he said.

The IOC did help Kwame, awarding him a grant as part of its solidarity program to help developing nations and underfunded athletes.

"We are proud of him and look forward to following him in Vancouver," the IOC said in a statement. "It is a real reward for this gifted Alpine skier who had to overcome a lot of challenges."

Kwame's charismatic story suggests a movie treatment, and comparisons with the Jamaica bobsled team immortalized in "Cool Runnings" are welcomed.

"I totally respect what they did," the Snow Leopard said. "They were making the effort to show people that, sorry, we didn't come here to joke."

He is a serious man, and a film of his life also would be a love story.

"It's clean, it's pure," Kwame says of skiing. "You go up on the mountain, everything is white. You're not going to get dirty. You've got vistas and peaks rolling in front of you.

"Let's face facts: I'm not the best skier in the world. But every day I step on to the mountain I can do something better to go faster."

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