Winter Olympics: From plastic to fantastic: the first and only Springbok skier

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The Independent Online
The inspirations for Alex Heath's journey to the giant slalom in Nagano came from a pencil case and a dry slope in Kent. Andrew Martin meets the lone Springbok skier.

As unlikely sporting achievements go, Alex Heath's ranks, at a glance, alongside the Jamaican bobsleigh team, celebrated in the Walt Disney film Cool Runnings. But whereas the Jamaicans were hopeless, plucky triers, there is nothing Mickey Mouse about Heath's Olympic challenge in the giant slalom in Nagano.

Heath is South Africa's first Olympic skier. And what makes the 19-year- old more extraordinary still is that he learned to ski not on snow-capped peaks - South Africa has only one small ski resort - but on the dry ski slopes of Kent.

Heath's journey from the land of the Bokke to Colorado where he now trains via England's garden county is intriguing. After all, surely what every young South African - even one with an English father - wants is to don the green and gold jersey of the Springbok, or perhaps play some cricket, football even.

Heath excelled at all the above at school, but he chose instead to pursue the unlikeliest of goals because of a simple gift. On the eve of his family's departure for England when he was eight, Heath was given a pencil case by a friend. It bore a picture of a downhill racer, an image so different and inspiring that Heath was enthralled.

"I didn't know what skiing was really, and I'd never seen snow," he said. "I said to my parents, `when I get to England, I'll be able to do this'."

"At least the Alps are 6,000 miles closer," his bemused parents replied.

But the determined youngster was not in such a hopeless situation, since he soon discovered a 30m artificial slope in Folkestone eight miles from his new home. "I just absolutely loved it; there was nothing else I wanted to do," he recalls. "I didn't know what to expect but I took to it quite well and loved trying to go faster and faster."

Barely a few months after his first tentative descents, he was clutching his first medal as a victorious member of his primary school's B team.

Heath's determination to succeed manifested itself, painfully, in regular, high-speed tumbles. But improvement was rapid and Heath progressed to longer slopes and stiffer competition. He even skied on snow at the age of 12.

The determination eventually paid off and Heath was the All England junior champion for two years. Other senior titles followed and he joined a ski club in Wengen where he received tuition from Austrian coaches. Heath switched to snow full time at the Waterville Ski Academy in New Hampshire.

With South Africa shrugging off its pariah status, Heath became the country's only world-ranked skier in 1994. And having gained sufficient points through racing in the United States, he competed at the World Championships in Sierra Nevada, Spain, where he was the youngest competitor. There he improved 11 places on his start number of 79 in the super-G and he finished 30th in the slalom and giant slalom. From plastic to fantastic in barely six years.

While recovering from a cracked skull (after falling from a chin-up bar) he finished in 42nd place in a field of 110 in last year's World Championships in Sestriere, Italy.

Injury has limited his qualification for Nagano to the giant slalom alone, but he is far from daunted. "They say that the course is going to be hard. But I'm not going to change to way I am and in the future, hopefully, I'll finish more than I fall.

"I'm fortunate in that I'm 19 now and I've already been to two World Championships - I've got all that experience now, and I'll be going to an Olympic Games well before my competitive peak so I'm getting unbelievably valuable experience."

Unlikely as it sounds, South Africa's man of Kent may, one day, be its first man of gold.

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