Forget Eric the Eel... meet the Snow Leopard
Ghana's first professional skier is heading to the Winter Olympics – via Milton Keynes
Thursday 22 October 2009
He bills himself as the "Snow Leopard" – even though he saw snow for the first time just five years ago. Meet Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, Ghana's first professional skier who has defied extraordinary odds to qualify for the Vancouver Games in February.
As Africa's most unlikely Olympic hero since "Eric the Eel", Nkrumah-Acheampong, 34, will be his country's sole representative at the Winter Olympics. And to make his challenge even greater he has not been training on glistening slopes but at an indoor ski centre in Hemel Hempstead.
And it is hardly perfect preparation. "I'd go down again, but this is pretty rubbish," grumbles one snowboarder, after clearing the 160-metre slope in seconds. "How can anyone be expected to train here? It's like learning to swim in a bathtub."
Such talk does not deflate Nkrumah-Acheampong. "Of course it's not ideal," he concedes. "But it's better than nothing. You can practise technical stuff here. And if you multiply this slope by 10 – or ski down it 10 times over – you'll cover similar distances."
Born in Glasgow, where his father was completing a doctorate, Nkrumah-Acheampong was raised in a small town an hour from the capital Accra, where temperatures rarely drop below 2C, and most children dream of becoming stars on foreign football fields or boxing rings.
The race towards Olympic qualification began in 2002, when the Ghanaian returned to England, landing a job as a receptionist at Milton Keynes Xscape indoor snow dome. It was there, during the centre's off-peak hours, he discovered the "God-given" talent for hurtling down its artificial slope. After qualifying as an instructor and successfully attempting the slalom, Nkrumah-Acheampong won a few races, got promoted to assistant manager and gradually began to dream of Olympic glory.
"I've always been athletic but I tend to lose interest as I reach the top," he says. "Skiing is the one sport that I feel I have never mastered. Perhaps that's what made me so driven to succeed at it."
To qualify for the Winter Olympics, skiers need to get their personal rating down to between 120 and 140 World Ski Federation points. Nkrumah-Acheampong, who started at 1,000, has steadily brought his tally down, finally going below the magical 140-point barrier after skiing in the Italian Alps last winter.
Now with a place at the opening ceremony guaranteed, the countdown to the Games is on. After dropping his two children to school each morning, his current training regime includes a daily jog around Milton Keynes, extensive workouts at LA Fitness and flag-shaking slalom sessions at the Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead.
"The thought of other athletes out there with their coaches pushing iron every morning is enough to get me out of bed," he says. His routine will step up a gear in December when he winters in the Italian resort of Val di Fiemme for ruthless eight-hour-a-day training sessions until the start of the Olympics.
But how does he rate his chances of success? "I guess the best scenario would be to beat at least 10 people, including big countries that are considered small skiing nations," he says. "Teams like Pakistan and India."
Experts are more sceptical. "Realistically, his chances of success border around one-in-a-million," whispers his publicist, eager to manage expectations. Bookmakers William Hill cites odds of 500/1 for the Snow Leopard to seize any type of medal, though point out that his chances are significantly better than Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, who memorably represented Britain at ski-jumping in 1988.
Regardless of what happens, there is a social element that underpins his exploits. Nkrumah-Acheampong has the backing of several charities, including Sabre, the British charity that is operating in Ghana to build schools in deprived areas. "I want to remove the stigma of sport in Africa, where too often it's considered something that dummies do," he says. "Education can go hand-in-hand with leisure and recreation. It doesn't have to be a choice of one or the other. I want people to see that."
To make that point clearer, he returned to Accra earlier this year and has already secured preliminary government backing for Ghana's first artificial ski slope which he hopes will be built before the next Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. With a site already earmarked on the Akuapem Hills in the town of Mamfe, the project is designed not just to seal his legacy but to pave the way for Ghana's second-ever Olympic ski racer in years to come.
"At the very least, it will be the first time that snow sets in sub-Saharan Africa," he says. "It'll be cool."
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