Grand Ma Minka's boy: The story of Akwasi Frimpong
No snow? No problem: Akwasi Frimpong is a fearless pioneer fighting for black empowerment within the dangerous depths of winter sports, writes Fiifi Anaman
He seems absent-minded, occupied with a mental probe for an answer.
Before long, he shakes his head, slowly.
“No…honestly,” he says. “I would have never imagined this.”
I believe him. He is being honest.
Of course. Why not?
Who else would have imagined this, really?
I had asked Frimpong, a former track and field sprinter, if, years ago, when he set out to become a sportsman, he had ever seen himself being in the unusual yet inspiring position he is today: a black man competing in the sport of skeleton.
Now let’s not commit the intellectual sin of carrying on under the pretension – or assumption, if you will - that we all know what skeleton is about, especially in this part of the world.
Don’t worry. We’ll break it down.
First of all, skeleton is a winter sport, which means the show happens on snow. It gets its spice from ice.
For the lay man, the mention of winter sports brings disciplines such as skiing and snowboarding to mind, thanks to their relative popularity. Maybe you can throw in figure skating too – that kind of ballet dance competition on ice that you occasionally see on television. It falls under ice-skating.
Lurking in the shadows of these sports are the trio of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, known under their umbrella name ‘sledding’, because of their use of vehicles called sleds. The race track where sledding takes place is known as an ice track.
Skeleton is the youngest of the sledding sports, originating in St Moritz, Switzerland around 1882 – a dozen years after the inception of bobsleigh and luge.
It is a fascinating sport. And no, it has nothing to do with human skeletons, as many people, even the smartest, have wondered. It was apparently named so because of the bony appearance of the sled that it uses – which is an irony, because the skeleton sled is no light work, as some weigh up to about 95 lbs.
So, what is it all about, then?
Let’s attempt to explain how it works.
It begins with a running push-start, which is exactly what the name suggests: running, pushing and starting. At the opening gate of an ice track, usually at situated at the top of it, skeleton athletes bend their bodies and hold on to a handle of their sleds with one hand, taking a short sprint of about 30 metres to gain momentum while pushing the sled simultaneously.
Following the strides, they dive face-down unto the sled for the slide. This is where the thrill begins, as they plunge head-first down and across the entire course of the ice track.
Sound fun? Not quite. Try frightening, rather. This is a dangerous sport.
Many sports are fraught with a need for speed: there’s the 100 meter sprint in track and field, the serve in tennis, the acceleration from Formula 1, the shot from football, the bowl from cricket, the smash of the shuttlecock in badminton, the flight of the golf ball, and even the swing of the Jai alai, a ball from the Spanish sport of Pelota which the Guinness Book of World Records considers to be the fastest moving object in sports.
But none of these quite presents motion in the helpless, life-threatening manner that skeleton does.
While sliding on their sleds, skeleton athletes can reach speeds of between 120 km/h and 140 km/h – an astonishing range. As the BBC aptly observes, these are “speeds you shouldn’t reach on a motorway”, requiring an “adrenaline rush like no other”.
“Skeleton racers are a tough breed,” the official Olympics website notes. “It takes nerves of steel to compete in an event where speeds can touch 120km/h.”
Unfortunately, the insanely unsafe speed levels – “it’s like one you’ve never experienced before,” Frimpong confesses - are inevitable. It is in fact the essence of the sport. The best skeleton athletes are those who can slide down an ice track the fastest. It is a time trial sport, which means that success revolves around the clock.
A skeleton athlete, whose only major source of protection is a helmet, embarks on a ride ridden with hazards. The endeavour is, as CNN notes, “death-defying”.
If you think this is mere fear mongering, there is a way to verify it from comfort of your home. The Discovery Channel has a short, 360 degrees virtual reality video on YouTube that puts the viewer in the shoes of a skeleton athlete as he slides. The video is titled, Skeleton Racing: Charge Head First.
Look for it.
It is, as you’ll find out after watching, not an experience for the weak. “Skeleton is the winter sport where every race means risking it all,” the video’s caption says. “These highly trained athletes put it all on the line as they push themselves to shave milliseconds off their race time.”
This is true. All alone and at the mercy of the vicious velocity, a skeleton athlete hurtles down an ice track that is normally designed with many tricky twists and turns – potential traps for accidents.
The danger gets more complex when you consider how difficult it is to operate a skeleton sled. Basically, during the slide of their lives, skeleton athletes have to command rare levels of courage amid a blur of limited control: they lie prostrate on their sleds, their hands tucked to their sides, their face only inches away from the ice, their vision compromised.
When you travel at such mind-numbing speeds, you’d think you’d have a breaking or steering device to make it a tad easier and safer?
Skeleton athletes would envy Formula 1 drivers, their fellows in the business of blistering speed, because the former have neither steering nor breaking devices: they direct their movements with their heads and slow their sleds down with their feet.
The only light at the end of the tunnel is the fresh snow - or sometimes, foam pads - at the end of ice tracks to aid them in stopping after the heart-stopping slide.
“There’s a touch of madness to it,” said Kristan Bromley, a two-time world skeleton champion who spent twenty years in the sport, in an interview with the Guardian in 2006.
The skeleton slide, like life, is short. It is over within a minute, but during this time, it demands a lot of its athletes – mentally, technically and physically.
New Sliders, an online media publication that specializes in the coverage of skeleton, unsurprisingly ranks courage as the first attribute a skeleton athlete has to have. Second to that is a combination of “quick thinking and physical dexterity”, because athletes have to “make many subtle steering movements in a matter of seconds.” Plainly, they need to know how to react, fast!
Weight is also a great asset: competitors have to be bulked up significantly, because “the physics of this sport dictate that heavier objects reach the finish line faster.” Then, importantly, they have to be good sprinters, because the faster the push-start, the better their chances of beginning the slide early and clocking a good time at the end.
There is also the problem of the ice track, which travels lengths of between 1000 and 1800 metres. It’s an intimidating obstacle course on its own. Some of its corners are hard to negotiate, requiring bargaining skills that takes years to cultivate. This means it is highly likely for an athlete to experience many bumps – both minor and major. The aim, though, is to achieve a ‘clean’ slide across the track, as crashing against edges of the track slows down the athlete and eventually increases his time, pushing him down rankings.
Amid all of this sophistication, Frimpong recognizes the significance of his ability to compete alone.
“It’s a really visceral sport,” he tells me, gesturing winding movements with his head. “It involves a lot of finesse. You’re moving with your mind sort of, so you need to concentrate, to focus.”
Because one wrong move, and the repercussions could be fatal. There is a reason why the Guardian’s Donald McRae once described the sled used in skeleton as a “death trap disguised as a hi-tech tea tray.”
In 2001, Latvian skeleton athlete Girts Ostenieks met his untimely death in the depths of the Sigulda ice track in his native country.
Head-first, he sped at 57km/h into a stray, empty sled. According to CBC Sports, the sled he crashed into had mistakenly drifted into his path. "Everybody yelled, 'Look up, look up!'" Sigulda Track Director Dainis Dukurs, who witnessed the accident, reportedly said. "But when he lifted his head, it was too late."
The errant sled pierced Ostenieks’ skull. He died instantly, a grim climax to what was only a training session.
Here’s another story that may send shivers down your spine. It starts from the 10 of February 2010, on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. An article appeared in the New York Times, titled: “Tempting Fate at the Winter Olympics”. Its author, the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Branch, ominously described the Vancouver Games – which was going to feature sports such as skeleton – as being “predicated increasingly on danger”.
“Safety is no more assured in Vancouver than it was on the way there,” Branch wrote. He had a point: across history, three winter sports athletes were on record to have died as part of preparations for Winter Olympic Games – twice in 1964 and once in 1992.
Branch’s elegantly written article highlighted a lot of danger, carried a lot of concern – all backed by many pieces of evidence.
Just two days after its publication, an ice-track tragedy struck.
On the 12 of February, just hours before the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games, Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili suffered a horrific crash at the Whistler sliding center while training. He flew off the ice track and collided with a steel pole. Medics dashed to his side in a flash – there was CPR, mouth-to-mouth, but both failed. He was rushed to the hospital. He didn’t survive. He was just 21.
Kumaritashvili competed in Luge, which is the twin sport of skeleton, with very little differences apart from athletes sliding face-up and feet-first rather than face-down and head-first. He was estimated to be travelling at a chilling speed of 143.6 km/h at the moment of impact.
The year before Kumaritashvili’s death, another luge athlete was reported to have reached a record 153,937 km/h, prompting fear and concern regarding the sport’s reach for vertiginous speed levels. "It makes me worry," Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation (FIL), complained.
Given that it has sent athletes to their grave, it’s safe to say this discipline is grave – only for the brave. So why does Frimpong bother? Think about it: he hails from a country that has nothing to do with snow, so why try?
When I asked him in a studio interview earlier, he smiled.
Then, he laughed.
“It’s a challenging thing,” he admitted.
It really is. And he knows.
This is how he once described the skeleton slide, in an interview with Texas-based Kxan-TV: “Go head first, anywhere from 70-90 miles per hour with your chin about three inches from the ice…basically, lying with my belly against a cooking sheet and going as hard as possible down the track.”
Back in our studio interview, Frimpong explained how he manages to be brisk despite the risks.
“I don’t think about the fact that it is fearful or risky,” he began.
Then he continued, philosophically.
“With all the things I went through as an (track and field) athlete in the Netherlands and the US, I have learned to face fear. I have learned that it’s possible,” he said.
“Through skeleton I’m trying to show people to come out of their comfort zone as much as possible and get into something different. We cannot all be Abedi Pele, we cannot all be Usain Bolt, but we all have talent that we can definitely use.”
Since getting initiated into the sport, Frimpong has put in a lot of hard work – both in learning about it, gearing up for it, and training for it. It involves a schedule that is draining, financial commitments that can inspire sleepless nights.
Exaggeration? Well, let’s get into the details, shall we?
A helmet costs up to $500, shoes up to $350, a speed suit up to $250, and runners up to $1000.
Hang on: these are just the complements.
Now let’s get to the main sled, which is a high tech vehicle: a second-hand one costs up to $2,500, while a brand new one costs up to a dear $6000.
At the elite level, the costs can sky-rocket: the UK’s Amy Williams, who won gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics, reportedly spent £100,000 (about $130,000 in today’s rates) on her sled alone.
There’s more headache for the athlete, who has to pay up to access an ice track to train on. Currently, there are only 17 ice tracks in the world – and you know what scarcity does to costs.
No wonder athletes in this sport fund themselves through endorsement deals and donor support.
How does Frimpong deal with all the stress of making it?
His strength, he says, comes from family.
“My daughter really motivates me. She keeps me going,” Frimpong says, glowing.
His daughter, the adorable Ashanti Adwoa Shields Frimpong, was born in April to his wife, former long-jumper Erica Shields Frimpong.
“I work hard for my daughter because it would hurt so much one day to look her in the eyes and say I didn’t give it my all.”
Frimpong, as a student of Utah Valley University in the US, met Erica, then competing for Bingham Young University (BYU), at an athletics competition. They married in 2014, and she has since been a vital part of his life.
“The one thing she (Erica) tells me, ‘I don’t want you to be 99 years old and still whining, in a positive way, about your Olympic dreams,” Frimpong told Kxan-TV.
Those dreams have been alive and breathing ever since Frimpong turned 15.
A friend of his, who lived within his neighbourhood flats in the Netherlands, had shown Frimpong a medal the former had won at a local athletics competition. Frimpong held the medal, stared at it. He was fascinated. He wanted to own one.
It was 2001, and he had found a sense of purpose, and outlet for his God-given talent of athleticism.
Later, through a track and field competition in Junior High School, he would be discovered and recruited by former Dutch-Surinamese athlete Sammy Monsels, an alumnus of the 1972 and 1976 Sumer Olympic Games.
“He (Monsels) really influenced me by teaching me the ways of a sprinter,” says Frimpong.
The genesis of his life on the tracks was characterized by tough luck. Frimpong participated in a 60 meter indoor championship and missed the final by 0.100 of a second. Other near misses followed, his spirit taking a beating.
By means of bizarre yet purposeful digression, here’s an interesting piece of trivia: as a side-job, Frimpong is a motivational speaker, getting to guest-speak at events around the world. He draws on his difficult journey – which you’ll later become acquainted with - to give words of hope to anxious youth. One of his favourite motivational quotes, he tells me, reads: “If failure was really the only last step, there wouldn’t be something called success.”
And so while failing as a fledgling sprinter, he didn’t back down, didn’t see it as a last step. He was frustrated, but still curious enough to find out what he had to fix. What he had to do to reach success.
“I went to coach and asked: ‘What do I need to be the best on and off the field? What do I need to do to win a gold medal?’” he reveals.
“One of the things he told me was persistence, belief in yourself and discipline – and I made them a part of my life.”
It did the trick. Just 18 months later, he became the Dutch junior national champion in 200 meter at the age of 17.
His progress from then would prove as fast as his sprinting: he won many other medals, earning the nickname ‘Golden Sprint’. He trained like a racehorse, fuelled by the Olympic dream born of his encounter with his friend’s medal.
He stood a realistic chance of making it too. He stood out among his peers, ticked many boxes of potential. By any standard, he looked set to reach the heights he aspired to soar towards.
But life happened, in the form of an injury, clipping his wings.
Then, he experienced a dramatic change in course, in destiny.
Frimpong never made the Olympics on the tartan tracks, but he could just make it on an ice track.
Again: who would have thought?
The change of destiny is what has brought him to Ghana this year, for the first time after 23 years away in the Netherlands and in the US.
We’re at a restaurant at Atomic Junction, having lunch over a conversation that looks back on his life. Frimpong seems to be in a mood of reflection as he speaks, in the process seemingly realizing and appreciating the sense of destiny to his journey – opportunities opening up in strange places, things falling apart yet falling in place at the same time; beautiful mysteries he will always be thankful for.
He talks about what it means to be back after over two event-laden decades – the most heartfelt of which is a long-awaited reconnection with his grandmother, called Minka, with whom he lived during his formative years under tough conditions, and to whom he is intensely attached to.
He talks of Grandma Minka with profound affection. “We hugged for such a long time,” he says of their reunion. “We were both so happy. We both couldn’t believe it – it’d been so long.”
Born in Kumasi, Ghana, Frimpong first emigrated to the Netherlands to join his mother, gospel singer Esther Amoako, in January 1995. He was eight.
In Europe, there was a flurry of frustration for Frimpong. For years, even after having been immersed in Dutch culture, he struggled with immigration issues. This made sure he initially missed out on many opportunities – including chances to represent the Netherlands in international competitions, as well as travelling outside for training. Indeed, many schools – bar one in Amsterdam named after the late Dutch football legend Johann Cruyff - refused him admission too. It took as long as 13 years, amidst efforts he calls “monumental”, to finally secure a Dutch residency permit in 2007 and nationality the following year.
Meanwhile, he suffered an injury that would rule him out for about three years, his access to health stifled because of his difficulty in sorting out his paper work.
While his successes as a sprinter could not help earn him some respite from his legal battles, it did eventually win him an athletic scholarship away to the United States in August 2008. His destination? Utah Valley University (UVU). “My mum thought it would be a great opportunity to move to the US and show my talent,” he reveals.
UVU saw Frimpong experience an athletic mini-resurgence of sorts, recovering to do well in 100, 200 and 4 by 100 meters, winning some medals while competing in college competitions.
But the good times wouldn’t last.
Injury would rear its ugly head again, this time bearing the form of an Achilles problem that refused to heal, hampering his chances of making it to the 2012 summer Olympics as part of the Dutch squad.
“Six guys could represent the Netherlands for the 4 by 100 meters relay event. I wasn’t able to make the mark. Others were better than me, and I had my injury as well,” he explains.
It was a painful phase. “I have fought for a long time, since I was a kid, and making it to the 2012 summer Olympic Games would have been a great achievement,” he told Neways North America in an interview in the wake of the disappointment. “But nobody who ever gave their best regretted it, and I literally gave my all.”
He was 26, and thanks to the athletic assassin that is recurring injuries, his track and field aspirations had been killed.
His long-held Olympic dream, that medal aspiration, seemed to have received its last coffin nail, lowered into the ground, dust shovelled upon it. “I went through a lot of injuries,” he recounts. “And you know track and field is that kind of sport whereby you get to a certain point and age hits you. You slow down and can’t compete at the highest level.”
He believed a major door had been shut in his face, but he would later find out that that door wasn’t the Olympics itself, but just a matter of which of the Olympics.
Move out summer, step in winter.
Things work out in strange ways when they are meant to be.
Frimpong’s college, UVU, is based in Orem, Utah. A 57-minute drive up north will take you to Park City, Utah, which is where the Utah Olympic Park is located.
The Park is home to one of the world’s 17 ice tracks for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge.
In the course of his injury, Frimpong had been courted by the Dutch bobsleigh team while on holidays back at home in Harderwijk, the Netherlands.
The new, unfamiliar sport eventually got down on one knee for him - an athlete cum coach at the Dutch Bobsled Federation asked Frimpong to try the sport.
Was he interested?
He wasn’t sure, at first. He was venturing into a discipline he knew next to nothing about. But the good thing, it seemed, was that he was built for it – he had speed and strength. He looked the part, fit the bill – a square peg in an unusual square hole.
But he still had a weird decision to make.
“I had to think about it for a while, because I was like: a black man on ice, are you crazy?!” he recalls.
Turns out he was.
In November 2012, while Frimpong was in the US, the Dutch bobsleigh team came around to Park City and tried him as a brakeman for their B side. “It was important for me to start something new, something different – and to still be able to use my skills as an athlete,” he says. “Because of my athletics background, I was able to skip certain basics like running and pushing in the learning process.”
If skeleton and luge seem like twins, then bobsleigh - or simply bobsled – is their cousin. It has their familiar blueprint– a sled, sliding down an ice track - except this is a team sport consisting of two to four people riding in a much bigger, perhaps safer sled while sitting, and not lying prone (skeleton) or supine (luge).
In September 2013, Frimpong was invited for the Dutch Pre-2014 Winter Olympics team trials for bobsled. After two days of tests, he made it among seven other brakemen.
He was finally close to realizing his Olympic dream…
…but it wouldn’t happen.
He eventually failed to make it to the Games, held in Sochi, Russia, but that failure would pivot his trajectory once more unto the path he is now convinced he was born to take.
In 2015, he switched from bobsled to skeleton, and he has since not looked back.
Frimpong is back home this year to introduce his compatriots to the sport that is changing his life.
He is here to formally launch the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation Ghana (BSF-G), which he conceived in 2015 - the first winter sports association in the West African country.
The day before our meeting, Frimpong organized a workshop to preach the gospel of skeleton to a curious and enthusiastic congregation of Ghanaian youth. It turned out to be an exercise marked with remarkable interest – and improvisation.
Locally manufactured wooden sleds with wheels were used for the demonstrations, and the concrete car-pack in front of the Decathlon Sports Shop at the Teshie-Nungua-based Junction Mall served as the imaginary ice track. Over 40 people attended, boys and girls, men and women, all seeking to be a part of a momentous start.
Frimpong was visibly overwhelmed by the turnout.
“Can you imagine? Ghana? winter sports? Over 40 athletes?” he told me after his tutorials, a discernible emotion of gratitude underlying his grin.
“It shows there’s a lot of passion out there. A lot of talents looking for something different.”
At the event, Frimpong’s passion for his new found occupation was immediately evident to all participants and observers. Dressed in a bright yellow top and black sports shorts that accentuated his brawny features, he rolled up his sleeves and exerted himself. He jumped and stretched and sprinted, pushing and lying on sleds, all while directing and teaching, drenched in sweat, wearing a smile.
Tapping into his personal endorsement deals and sponsorship sources, Frimpong decided to found and fund the BSF-G. It was because he wanted to “do something for my country”, he tells me.
And the country indeed does need something – a breath of fresh air, at least. Ghana’s history of achievement in the Olympics leaves much to be desired. The country has sent delegations to 14 summer Olympic tournaments since its debut at the 1952 Helsinki Games, yet can only boast of four medals cumulatively. Four medals in 65 years – none of them gold.
Indeed, the country has barely ever seen a drop of snow, making the prospect of competing in winter sports alien, if not overambitious. Some even consider it laughable and cringe-worthy, a forced attempt to be something the country naturally isn’t.
But Frimpong, almost singularly, begs to differ.
He has a case too.
Admittedly, snow is as exclusive a weather element as skeleton is as a sport: the world’s 17 ice tracks are spread across only 13 countries in Europe, Asia and North America.
Now here’s an encouraging story off that fact, one that supports Frimpong’s logic, his belief and hope: Britain is not part of the cabal of 13 countries. It does not have a single ice track. Yet it has managed to produce world champions, like the great Kristan Bromley, earlier mentioned, a man nicknamed ‘Dr Ice’. Recently, the Brits have gone further to produce female skeleton juggernauts too: there’s Amy Williams, gold medallist at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, and Lizzy Yarnold, the 2014 World champion and 2014 Sochi Winter Games gold medallist.
This, by the way, is not a foolhardy attempt at comparing conditions in both the UK and Ghana, colonial master against colony. Snow falls in the UK, unlike Ghana – but the emphasis here is on the audacity of talent overcoming the limitations of non-existent facilities. You control what you can change, and the weather bit – natural and unchangeable – can only be a hindrance if it is thought of as so.
In Ghana’s sporting talent terrain, Frimpong sees signs of a potential mine, to be discovered and to be explored. He believes Ghanaian athletes are naturally endowed with traits – among them, he says, “strength, speed, determination, resilience” - essential for success in snow sports such as bobsleigh and skeleton. He discovered it in himself and has been nurturing it amid global interest and admiration.
Now, he wants the same for his countrymen.
It may all seem like a long stretch, but Frimpong may be unto something – a hidden treasure, success in a slumber. Consider this: Ghana existed 50 years as a state before becoming aware it was blessed with rare oil quantities estimated to be between five and seven billion barrels.
The country thus spent five decades oblivious of the fact that it sat on reserves so significantly vast that it later ranked fifth in Africa and 25 in the world. For many years, Ghana thought cocoa was its trump card, that oil was the exclusive blessing of others – but that plot has since twisted.
Of course, nature doesn’t play the fairy-tale game. The weather elements don’t kowtow to wishes, and so Ghana may never join the league of snow’s favourite countries to visit, but for Frimpong, that should not rule out competition for competent athletes. All that matters, he says, is the interest. And he’s seen it.
Take this, for instance. “There was this guy who saw us building the wooden sleds and was so fascinated by them,” he tells me. “He kept asking questions all the way through and promised to turn up for our clinic and he did! It got me so excited.”
What is needed to complement that sort of encouraging interest, Frimpong believes, is athletic talent - something Ghana has been long touted to have in abundance.
Frimpong opines that if both factors are there, it would be worth investing in, worth honing by education and exposure within state-of-the-art facilities abroad. This is a process which is already underway: his BSF-G outfit has been conducting a nationwide talent search for potential bobsled and skeleton athletes.
That is unheard of. But it is also revolutionary. For Frimpong, there is an opportunity to write a whole new story in the chapter of Ghanaian sports, to create a whole new path towards Olympic glory, and he is committed to executing his duties as destiny’s chosen one at the forefront.
His belief in Ghana’s winter sports future is contagious and serious. So contagious that you’d be sold seconds after listening to him talk about it, and so serious that he decided, over the last year, to dedicate his full-time attention to the cause.
With a marketing and business management degree from UVU, Frimpong worked a well-paying job, and even owned a business - but these are safety net endeavours he has since had to side-line in order to concentrate on being a full-time athlete, to concentrate on promoting Ghanaian bobsled and skeleton.
This move almost sounds suicidal for Frimpong, a 31-year-old family man with suffocating expenses. With the uncertainty of an irregular pay-cheque, life has been tough as he hustles for sponsorship. “It has been a challenging adventure for my family,” he admitted in a Facebook post. “It has been overwhelming and very expensive.”
But he believes the cause he fights for is bigger than him, a giant leap for the good of a country, a selfless pursuit for benefit of generations to come.
The end result is worth fighting for, and so his struggles are, as he wrote, “a price I have to pay for being a pioneer.”
Frimpong’s big target is the 2022 Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing. It means a lot to him because of what it could potentially mean for Ghana. “What makes it significant is that it won’t only be about me,” he says. “It will be an opportunity to gear up a team from Ghana to do both bobsled and skeleton. The big dream is to take a whole team to the 2022 games.”
Until then, and in the meantime, he would have to pave the way: and that is why he has been flying the globe in a frantic, ambitious project to qualify for the 2018 Games.
What does he need to do to make it?
Well, there’s a daunting criteria to scale, which requires a minimum of five races on three different ice tracks in two years. Luckily for him, he is halfway there – impressive for an athlete who started the sport from scratch only two years ago.
In addition, Frimpong will need to rank in the top 60 on the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) world ranking by January 14, 2018.
It is a race against time. And against convention. On the average, it takes years to become good enough to compete at the high echelons of skeleton, events like the Olympics and the world championship. Athletes need to put in their proverbial 10,000 hours. They have to learn it. They have to earn it. During the 2010 Vancouver Games, the gold medallists, Canada’s Jon Montgomery, 30, and the UK’s Amy Williams 27, had been sliding since 2002 – eight years of blood, sweat and tears.
But there are signs to suggest Frimpong is on the right path, and even far along it. He had an eventful first season (2016/17), one that now sees him strapped with valuable experience. He competed in 12 races on four different ice tracks — Calgary, Utah, Lake Placid and Germany, and was ranked 95 in the world out of 148 athletes; none of whom, bar him, is African. He also competed at the 2017 IBSF World Championships in Koenigssee, Germany – the first Ghanaian and West African to ever do so.
If Pyeongchang 2018 becomes a reality, Frimpong will make history: he will become the first black African to ever to compete in the skeleton event of the winter Olympics.
It would send out a huge statement, putting Ghana on the map. The Ghana Olympic Committee (GOC) has thrown its support behind him, saying it is “very proud of Akwasi and his efforts to not only become an Olympian, but in the meanwhile promoting winter sport in Ghana.”
More support for Frimpong’s Olympic dream came recently from Dutch-Ghanaian initiative Cocoa from Ghana, a push Frimpong calls “perfect”, because it stems from a collaboration between two countries crucial to his journey.
The institution’s sponsorship of Frimpong seems poetic, as he has so far proved to be as distinct an export of Ghana as cocoa is.
The 1993 movie Cool Runnings, which was loosely based on the Jamaican bobsleigh team that debuted at the 1988 winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, is regarded as the phenomenon that shot sledding into the global spotlight.
The well-received movie, produced by Disney, dramatized the trials and resilience of a fictional Jamaican team – telling an underdog story rooted in a fairy tale feel.
Frimpong, like many other people, has seen the movie, and is thankful to this powerful piece of pop culture for boosting the popularity of the sphere he finds himself.
To understand why this movie is being pulled up to tell Frimpong’s story, however, you’d need to watch it closely.
Do you see it? The striking similarities between the stories of Frimpong and the protagonists?
They are former track and field athletes.
They turn to sledding after failure to make the summer Olympic Games. (Seoul 1988 for the Jamaicans, and London 2012 for Frimpong)
They hail from countries (Jamaica and Ghana) without snow, pitching them against the odds. In fact, in one of Cool Runnings’ theatrical release posters, there’s a tagline that reads: “Jamaican Bobsledders?” Frimpong would be a millionaire if he earned a penny for anytime someone questioned: “A Ghanaian skeleton athlete?”
Again, they commit financial sacrifices to make their Olympic dreams come true. In the movie, character Junior Bevil sells his car to fund the team’s Olympic bid. Coincidentally, Frimpong sold his car in August to “support my family and reduce our living expenses while I’m training to fulfil my Olympic dream.” The car, a sleek blue Camaro which Frimpong broke a sweat to purchase, was difficult to give up. It was, he says, his “dream car”.
It is no surprise that Cool Runnings managed to make over $154 million in box office returns globally. It was, and still is, a hit with people. It has a feel-good plot, finding triumph in difficulty and adversity.
In the film, the Jamaicans qualify for the Calgary Games, although an accident resulting from their use of an old sled costs them a medal. Their coach, Irving Blitzer, a two-time bobsled gold medallist at the 1968 winter games, tells them: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."
Has Frimpong been enough without a gold medal?
That is hard to say, but what is easy to say is that he has been chasing one ever since he first saw his friend’s medal as a teenager.
He knows, though, that the first and most important victory, like the Jamaicans showed, is to get to the Games in the first place.
“I have been working towards my Olympic dreams for almost 17 years,” Frimpong emphasized on Facebook.
So, will he enjoy a Cool Runnings-style fairy tale? That remains to be seen.
Until then, he says, his eyes are firmly fixed on the prize, his mind and body ever willing to pay the price.
“I’m not here to make a Disney movie,” he told Kxan-TV.
“I’m here to compete with the best of the world.”
And he can.
Says his grandma Minka, who Frimpong tells me once told him:
“What you need for success is already in you. It is a matter of believing in yourself, having the will to work hard, and never giving up.”
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