Low-profile winter sports nations are finding help in unexpected places

Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong and India’s Vishwaraj Jadeja may be treading a path less travelled for their nations in the winter sports arena but they are not alone. Olympics.com takes a look at their stories ahead of Beijing 2022, which starts 4 February.

By Jo Gunston
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Faster, higher, stronger – these were the words that founder Pierre de Coubertin adopted as the Olympic motto in 1894 with the launch of the Olympic Movement. As of 20 July 2021, another word was officially added – together.

The move was a desire to recognise the unifying power of sport and the importance of solidarity. With this in mind, and as we head into the New Year and toward the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, which start 4 February, we look at two stories that demonstrate this togetherness perfectly.

Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong and the ROC

Akwasi Frimpong could have rested on his laurels after being lauded in his home country and beyond for becoming the first skeleton athlete from Ghana and the first black male skeleton athlete at an Olympic Winter Games when he competed at PyeongChang 2018.

He came 30th in a 30-strong field but that wasn't the point. Frimpong wanted to "break barriers and show other people they can do it as well", he told Olympics.com ahead of the Republic of Korea Games. To that end, he succeeded. But he wants more.

He wanted to develop as an athlete and carry on to the next Olympic Winter Games, Beijing 2022, but to do that he knew he needed more experience on different tracks.

Originally from Ghana, Frimpong moved to the Netherlands when he was eight, then to the United States – to Salt Lake City, Utah, the location of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games – where he is currently based. He practices at the Utah track but needed to mix it up, get to know and learn from other sliding venues, and for this he needed outside help.

After competing on the track built for Sochi 2014 at the Intercontinental Cup in November 2019 he approached the ROC team. Having met Frimpong at the event and found him "open" and "positive" and "a true ascetic of the skeleton", the president of the Russian Bobsleigh Federation, Elena Anikina, offered to help the Ghanaian.

Subsequently, Frimpong and his young family moved to Russia for 10 weeks in 2021, returning home in September, during which Frimpong received organisational and technical support alongside the ROC national team under senior coach, Denis Alimov.

By putting in so much effort, Frimpong hopes to replicate what he says was one of the best days of his life – knowing that his then nine-month-old daughter was watching him fulfill his Olympic dream at PyeongChang 2018. If he makes it to Beijing – he’ll know by 16 January 2022 if he has succeeded in gaining the required ranking – he’ll have an increased support system cheering him on – the ROC team.

Vishwaraj Jadeja, Indian speed skater

When there is no well-trodden path, you must make your own, but being helped by others along the way is invaluable. This is what Indian speed skater Vishwaraj Jadeja has learned throughout his journey to hopefully achieve his dream of becoming an Olympian.

Born in Ahmedabad, western India, Jadeja was a successful inline skater but he knew this was not an Olympic sport so, in his early 20s, he moved to Europe to pursue his Olympic dream via speed skating.

"Long track ice skating in the Netherlands is like cricket in India,” he explained to Olympics.com, outlining the reason behind the final stop on his journey across Europe. “And that's one of the reasons I moved to the Netherlands, because if you want to play cricket you go to India, if you want to play football you go to Brazil, if you want to do long track, you come to the Netherlands."

After being featured in a local news article during his initial forays into speed skating, he was approached by legendary Dutch trainer Wim Nieuwenhuizen who had nothing but admiration for the determined young man.

“If you're crazy enough to come all the way from India to pursue my sport, I'm crazy enough to coach you,” said Nieuwenhuizen, who coaches Jadeja to this day.

Yet Jadeja didn't quite reach his Olympic dream – he failed to make PyeongChang 2018 due to injury.

He was devastated so decided to take some time out. He headed to the Indian Himalayas but skating was never far from his thoughts, so he decided to replicate what he’d seen in the Netherlands’, which was skate on frozen lakes – it just happened to be 4,500 metres above sea level this time.

He hired some local villagers in Leh in India's state of Jammu and Kashmir and began to skate on the snow-covered Lake Tsomoriri. While there, he also discovered a small village where 500 ice hockey players were supported by the Hockey Foundation using some of the most expensive equipment available due to it being donated by the NHL. The foundation's coaches have also travelled to the region to encourage the growth of the sport.

“Eventually, I want to have athletes from across the world coming and doing this [speed skating] in India, where it is still very much new,” says Jadeja of his aim to help other people get involved in this sport he's come to love.

By following his own dreams Jadeja is helping to open up the winter sports arena to those who may not think it is for them, but help from people along the way, sometimes in the most unexpected of places, showcases that ultimately, we are all stronger together.

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