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Spain's first skeleton rider reaches Olympics

MADRID (AP) — Ander Mirambell's chances of reaching the Winter Olympics looked to be as good as the likelihood the Spanish skeleton rider would successfully navigate his first run down an icy track.

Marginal at best.

Yet the Barcelona native will trade his boogie board for a skeleton sled when he is among the 17 athletes competing for Spain at the Vancouver Games from Feb. 12-28, becoming the first Spaniard to compete in a sport that falls under the bobsled umbrella.

For the easygoing Mirambell, who will turn 27 during the games, the hardest part of his Olympic dream has already been achieved.

"There's no pressure because all that I've done up to this point has been incredible," Mirambell told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Now it's time to enjoy."

Mirambell knew he wanted to participate in the games and a glance at Spain's winter sports record showed one glaring hole: bobsled. So Mirambell created a club then decided on the discipline.

"With bobsled I needed a teammate and I couldn't find anyone. There was also the issue of equipment, so that narrowed it down to two things: luge and skeleton," Mirambell said. "The safer option was skeleton — it's less aggressive and a smoother sport to get into — while with bobsled and luge your chances of ending up in the hospital were higher."

The reaction among family, friends and acquaintances was as united as the support he would later receive.

"They were all surprised at first. 'Son, are you crazy?' my mother asked. It didn't help after I got hurt after starting, that really got her worried. But my father was supportive from start, he saw it was possible to do this," Mirambell said. "The only problem is it ruined a few relationships with my commitments and travels."

The surprise carried over to the circuit, as well.

"My competitors were surprised at first, the reaction was a lot like that movie 'Cool Runnings'," said Mirambell, a former decathlete and soccer player in the youth ranks of Spanish club Espanyol. "Now I'm just one more guy on a sled."

Nothing can compare to that first run down the circuit, which came five years ago in Innsbruck, Austria.

"You just pray all the way down. You're not so sure of what you have to do, but you manage. It was a nice moment," Mirambell said. "Overall it was tough at first, but now it's great because only five years later I'm in the Olympics and there for Spain, which you would never expect."

Especially for someone living in Barcelona, where the closest snow is in the Pyrenees — more than 90 miles away — and where no bobsled facilities exist.

When not training in Italy, Mirambell has learned to use the elements he has available — most notably the beach.

Mirambell might look like any other vacationer playing in the Mediterranean waves on his boogie board, but he's actually simulating his starts. He has also been using soccer club Barcelona's ice hockey rink, although being unable to stop himself from crashing into the boards left Mirambell preferring the beach training.

Especially as he's already had a number of broken bones, which could increase at Whistler in a sport where riders plummet head first down an icy slope at speeds of up to 80 mph. Mirambell compares the Whistler Sliding Center on Blackcomb Mountain — where bobsled and luge will also take place — to Formula One's street circuit in Monaco: an animal of a track, very technical and very fast.

"It's a tough circuit that can kill you if you're not prepared. I'm not going there for vacation," Mirambell said. "But there's no pressure because all that I've done up to this point has been incredible. The objective has been achieved and now it's time to enjoy."

Mirambell, who has been funded by the country's winter sports federation and Spain's Sports Ministry, does not expect to be the third Spaniard to reach the medal podium at a Winter Olympics. Francisco "Paquito" Fernandez Ochoa won men's slalom gold at Sapporo in 1972 and his sister Blanca won bronze in the women's slalom at Albertville in 1992.

Mirambell wants to learn, but "also to show that Spain can compete, although we're still a long way from that. Medals — you can forget about medals.".

What's important is to leave some kind of legacy so that the sport continues, especially with Barcelona set to bid for the 2022 Winter Games, which would also mean the construction of a bobsled complex.

Mirambell, studying sports sciences for his post-skeleton life, isn't sure he'll be competing there, but hopes the impact of his effort will be felt.

"(A legacy) would be magnificent and it would be a shame if after all of the work we've done that it would just be wasted," Mirambell said.