By Dirk Meissner
The Canadian Press
ABOVE PHOTO: Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong, of Ghana, takes a break from training to talk to the media on Mount Washington in Courtney British Columbia. Acheampong, dubbed the Snow Leopard, was the first athlete to hoist the Ghanaian flag in a Winter Olympics in the alpine courses.
(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Dirk Meissner)
COURTENAY, B.C. – He hails from sub-Saharan Africa, where it does not snow and temperatures average about this time of year.But Kwame Nkrumah Acheampong, dubbed the Snow Leopard, was knee-deep in fresh, cold powder snow two weeks ago as he trained for the upcoming Vancouver Games.
Acheampong will be the first athlete to ever compete for Ghana at a Winter Olympics when he hits the alpine courses in Whistler this month, competing in the slalom and giant slalom.”I’m just an ordinary chap,” the 35-year-old said as he was training on Mount Washington, on Vancouver Island. “I got into skiing just for fun. It’s turned into something else now.” Acheampong, who stands out in his unique leopard-print ski suit, said he was an avid tennis player in Ghana and skilled as a 100-metre relay runner, typical summer sports, but once he started to ski, the sport became his passion, and mission. Skiing may not be a traditional sport in Ghana, but Acheampong quickly points out that he qualified through his race results to be included in the elite field in the medal events at the Games.”
When I go to FIS (International Ski Federation) races, I’m competing like anyone else,” he said, stopping halfway down the Whiskey Jack run on the mountain near Courtenay, B.C., to speak with reporters.”I’m just like any other skier.”The novelty of an alpine skier from Ghana put people in mind of the lovable losers of Olympics past, such as the Jamaican bobsled team and ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who earned worldwide fans at the 1988 Calgary Games. But while Acheampong admits it would be a miracle if he won a medal, he’s not planning on finishing last either.”The idea is to ski well,”
Acheampong said. “It’s just a matter of can you put together two good runs on the day without any errors.”
With only six years of competitive skiing behind him, Acheampong said success will translate itself if he can motivate some other African athletes to take up skiing and ultimately win an Olympic medal.”I don’t think I’ll ever be the fastest skier to come from Ghana,” Acheampong said.
“The idea is to open the door. The next skier will be 10 times better than me from Ghana.”Acheampong was born in Glasgow, Scotland, where his father was at university studying, but he grew up in Ghana before returning to Britain, where he first put on skis at an indoor ski hill of sorts at Milton Keynes. He said he was given the nickname Snow Leopard while skiing at Milton Keynes, and the name stuck. His Uzbek coach, Denis Grigorev, said he has been working with the Snow Leopard since last year when the pair met in Iran and decided to work together.
Grigorev said Acheampong is a gifted athlete who skis amazingly well for his age and his relatively few years of training.”I think we’re ready, ready for the Games,’’ said Grigorev. “Of course, we’re not going to win a medal, but he’s ready.”Acheampong arrived almost penniless for some pre-Olympic training on Mount Washington, but the skier has been quickly adopted by the locals. Skiers were stopping on the mountain to greet the skier People greet him as if he was a long-lost uncle and many asked to have their photos taken with the Snow Leopard. He has a few sponsors but he’s footed almost all his Olympic costs himself, so he said he’s honoured by the support of the local community, near Courtenay, B.C. “It’s very warm, here,” referring to the reception he’s received.Thanks to local supporters, Acheampong now arrives at the mountain in a brand new car, covered in leopard spots with a sign on the side saying “live leopard on board.”Sarah Nicholson, Comox Valley tourism spokeswoman, said she met Acheampong last October at a Canada House media reception in London, England.
With the Jamaican bob sleigh team and Eddie the Eagle in mind, Nicholson said Vancouver Island eagerly opened its arms to the Snow Leopard, offering Mount Washington as his Canadian base.”It’s just phenomenal to have him here,” she said. “We want to play a small part in his journey.”