Olympian Leandro Ribela inspires a young community through a social ski project in a São Paulo favela

Ribela - who competed in the men’s cross-country competition at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 - is one of the mentors of the social project Ski na Rua in São Paulo. Despite operating in a tropical country, the project managed to help develop an Olympic skier in Victor Santos, who competed at PyeongChang 2018. Olympics.com tells the story of how a winter sport influences the lives of many children and teenagers in vulnerable conditions in Brazil.

By Virgílio Franceschi Neto
Picture by Leandro Ribela

It was during a family trip to San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, that a 12-year-old Leandro Ribela fell in love with snow sports: "When I discovered snow, I fell in love. The environment, snow and skiing," he said.

A life-long career began.

As a teenager, Ribela looked for work exchange programs in North America and saw opportunities in ski resorts. The Brazilian was able to land jobs at several resorts in the USA, and spent his summer vacations - winters in the northern hemisphere - working there, taking training courses, perfecting his skills in snow sports and earning the necessary qualifications to become an instructor.

"I was the manager of a children's ski school, but it was only when I was 24, 25 years old that I discovered a desire to compete. As I came from a running and triathlon background, cross-country was a natural choice. I ended up dedicating 10 years to high-performance sports," he said.

Ribela would go on represent his nation at the Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and currently works as the Olympic and Paralympic coordinator of the Brazilian Snow Sports Confederation (CBDN).

But two years before the 2014 Winter Games, Ribela made an important decision that would change the lives of many young people in vulnerable conditions in Brazil: he decided to launch the Ski na Rua project.

Ribela spoke with Olympics.com from Vuokatti, Finland, where he is currently working with the Brazilian Winter Paralympic team.

From supporting actors to protagonists

As an athlete, Ribela frequently toured the streets and avenues of the University of São Paulo's campus to practice cycling and rollerskiing, a summer variant of cross-country skiing. During his training Ribela often saw children and teenagers from the São Remo favela working as car guards or delivering water bottles to runners.

"That bothered me, I believed that those children and teenagers could use that space in a more democratic way by taking part in physical activities and interacting with others,” Ribela said. During a conversation with his friend Alexandre Oliveira, himself a triathlete, the two men decided to bring some rollerski equipment to the area and leave it for the youngsters to try out.

And so, a seed was planted.

“In a short period of time, I realised that it [the equipment] positively impacted the children’s self-esteem a lot,” Rivela says.

With the kids becoming more and more active, Ribela and Oliveira realised that they needed to become organised and provide even more opportunities to their local community.

Instructors and students of the "Ski na Rua" project in training in a sports court in São Paulo.

The growth of the project

In 2012 only four children were using the rollerski gear, but that number grew to 15 the following year. In 2014, the group more than doubled in size to 40, and in 2015 Ski na Rua was formalised as a social project: two physical education teachers from the São Remo region were hired to help work with the children.

"It is important that they [ the children] have positive examples around them. We hired an instructor who was born and raised in the neighbourhood and gave him a full scholarship to study physical education; he is finishing his studies, learning to speak English and working with us on the project. It makes us believe that anything is possible," explained Ribela. Ribela also says that the program is currently helping 110 students, aged between six and 21, 30% of whom are girls.

Ribela also realised that Ski na Rua needed to do more than simply provide sports activities for kids. "Students were absent for various reasons, such as a toothache. They had never been to the dentist. We needed someone to attend to them and we got a dentist to see 40 children once. We structured ourselves according to the needs that came up.”

Leandro Ribela of Brazil competes during the Cross-Country Skiing Men's 15 km Free on day 4 of the 2010 Winter Olympics at Whistler Olympic Park Cross-Country Stadium on February 15, 2010 in Whistler, Canada
Picture by 2010 Getty Images

Spreading knowledge is essential

When asked what motivates him to lead the project, Ribela smiles and says that maturity is a great factor: "Maybe for the experiences we are having. None of this would make sense for me if I couldn't give back to other people... doing the sport just for me, for another four years and measuring my degree of success by performance was not enough for me. What I had couldn't be saved with me," he reflected.

Working with sport to help and transform the reality of many also brings him great satisfaction: "I see the change in people and how sport can contribute to this, to personal and social growth. Sport is capable of opening doors and transforming lives," analyses Ribela.

Ski na Rua even produced an Olympic athlete, Victor Santos, who competed at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, a source of pride for Ribela and for the entire project. The challenges are endless, from the financial to the operational, but little by little and with the collaboration of many, Ribela adjusts an agenda full of commitments in high-performance sports activities (with CBDN) and participation sports (Ski na Rua).

Not a utopia, but a dream

Leandro Ribela's dreams include the growth of winter sports in Brazil and winning a Brazilian medal at the Games, be it the Olympics or Paralympics. As it is an almost entirely tropical country, the dream of a Brazilian medal in a winter sport can sometimes be confused with something utopian.

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once tried to explain what utopia is: "utopia is on the horizon. I approach ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps... what is a utopia for? That's it: so that I don't stop walking."

But Ribela is not afraid of the journey. He knows it's a long walk, but experience has taught him that the most important thing is to be happy. "Today I feel extremely happy and useful with my work. I go each day at a time. I continue with the same passion. Every time I see the snow I feel the same thing I felt when I was 12 years old, there in Bariloche, when I saw it for the first time."

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