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The Believer

It doesn't snow in Ghana. It never even gets chilly. But don't tell that to Kwame "Snow Leopard" Nkrumah-Acheampong, the sole member of the Ghana Olympic Ski Team.

Author Grant Stoddard Photography Levon Biss

ILLOGICAL, IRRATIONAL, DELUSIONAL, FOOLHARDY. Those are just some of the ways you might be described if, upon nearing your thirties, you announced that you were putting your life on hold to compete alongside the world’s elite in an expensive, dangerous and culturally alien sport you’d only recently tried for the very first time. Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong has a perfect rebuttal to such skepticism: Through sheer will, he recently qualified for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games in downhill skiing.

“Kwame should be here any minute,” says Richard Harpham, checking his cell phone for a call from the downhill sensation, whom he manages—or at least tries to manage. A camera crew from a local London news channel is sipping coffee impatiently. For the past hour, they’ve been waiting for the 34-year-old Ghanaian in the lobby of the Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead, an indoor skiing area 25 miles north of London. Outside the facility, it’s fall, the trees peaking in hues of gold and rust. But beyond the glass of the observation deck, we look down upon a scene of Alpine winter, replete with skiers and snowboarders nimbly carving through surprisingly powdery snow.

“Here he is now,” says Harpham, rubbing his hands with glee. “It’s my pleasure to introduce you to the Snow Leopard!”

Dressed in baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, the soft-spoken NkrumahAcheampong cuts an unassuming figure that belies his improbable achievement: In Whistler, British Columbia, he’ll compete in the slalom, giant slalom and, hopefully, super-giant slalom (super-G) and downhill events. The chances of Ghana’s one-man representative standing atop the winners’ podium are slim, but in human terms, his may well be the definitive triumphal story of the Vancouver games.

“Yes, of course there are parallels with the Jamaican bobsled team,” the skier says, referring to the 1988 Calgary fan favorites. “I don’t mind that at all. They actually had some very respectable starts in Calgary.” Though seen as a mere novelty at the time, the Jamaicans went on to beat the United States, Russia, France and Italy at the Lillehammer games six years later. The Snow Leopard can only hope for such success, though in marketing terms—he skis in a leopard-print suit, hence the nickname—he’s already ahead of the game.

Located just north of the equator, Ghana rarely sees the mercury drop below 70 degrees. In fact, the first time Nkrumah-Acheampong saw snow was the day he arrived at Heathrow Airport. “In retrospect,” he says with a smile, “that may have been an omen.” Nkrumah-Acheampong was actually born in Glasgow, Scotland, while his father was studying for a doctorate, but he returned to Ghana as an infant. After a series of jobs, including a stint as a safari guide, he relocated to London at 24 to earn a master’s degree in tourism management. Toward the end of his studies, he got a job as a receptionist at SNO!zone, an indoor ski area. “One of the perks of the job was that staff could use the slope for free at off-peak times,” he says. “I’d always been athletic, running and playing tennis, and I think that helped me pick up skiing quite quickly.”

Soon after his first time on skis, the young father of two was ripping down the 185-yard slope. “As I improved, one guy in particular kind of motivated me,” Nkrumah-Acheampong says. “He told me there was no way that I could qualify for an Olympic games. Well, I am a very competitive person, and I took that as a challenge. I wanted to make him eat his hat. Skiing was suddenly something I needed to master. That is what drives me.”

Nkrumah-Acheampong will need every last bit of that drive to compensate for the massive disparity between his experience and that of his Olympic competitors, most of whom have been skiing since they were toddlers. The Snow Leopard picked up the sport at an age when most competitive skiers are thinking about hanging up their boots. His progress was initially so rapid that he considered trying out for the 2006 winter games in Turin, Italy, 18 months after his first run. “Instead of Turin, I committed to 2010,” he says. “I don’t mind telling you, it’s been a long, hard journey.”

From the outset of his campaign, Nkrumah-Acheampong allied himself with several charities and organizations, which have already begun to benefit from his efforts. He’s helped build schools in deprived areas of Ghana, sent disadvantaged young Londoners to the French Alps to learn to ski and raised money for the conservation of his endangered feline namesake. Though he has yet to compete on the world stage, he’s already begun helping to prepare future Ghanaian winter Olympians. “We have a preliminary go-ahead from the government of Ghana to construct a dry slope,” he says, referring to an all-weather ski slope with an Astroturf-like surface. “I want to be able to give kids there the opportunity to earn a place in the winter games. People of African descent dominate running events now, but that was not the norm earlier in the twentieth century. It’s about being given the opportunity and support to succeed.”

Nkrumah-Acheampong mostly practices at the Snow Centre, but the slope’s modest length—a fraction of the size of a slalom course—makes it a little like training for the 200-meter butterfly in a kiddie pool. “It’s short, I agree,” he says after hurtling down the hill’s entire length in just a few seconds. “But it’s useful just to have contact with the snow, to improve my technique and balance.”

His daily routine is a grind. After seeing his wife, Sena, off to work and taking his two young kids to school each morning, the Snow Leopard jogs around his neighborhood before hitting a local gym, where he’s been given a free membership. “The way I motivate myself is to think of all the other people I’ll be skiing against who are training on glaciers or working with dieticians and personal trainers,” he says. “I must rely on myself. That fires me up.”

After his morning workout, he sits at his computer scaring up donations. In the precious few remaining hours before the kids arrive home from school, he drives to Hemel Hempstead and hits the slope. As the games approach, he’ll go to Val di Fiemme, a mountain resort in Italy that has offered him a training base for the month before the event. He hopes to find a coach there, but no one has stepped forward yet.

The Snow Leopard didn’t qualify for the Olympics solely by virtue of the fact that he’s the only representative from Ghana. In 1990, the International Olympic Committee passed the so-called “Eddie the Eagle rule” requiring Olympic hopefuls to compete in international events and place in the top 30th percentile or among the top 50 competitors. The rule is named for a nearsighted British plasterer whose profound lack of success in the ski-jumping event at the ’88 games endeared him to millions around the globe. In the wake of his notoriety, other competitors felt that his exploits made a mockery of the sport, and entry requirements have since been tightened considerably. Eddie Edwards himself became a victim of the rule when he failed to make the ’92 games.

To qualify for the Winter Olympics, skiers now need to get their personal rating down to between 120 and 140 World Ski Federation points from a starting point of 1,000. The Snow Leopard came in dead last in his first meets, but he finally crossed the 140-point threshold at a qualifier in Italy last March. Despite his success, money is a constant worry.

“The main problem is that in Ghana they are completely unfamiliar with the sport,” Nkrumah-Acheampong says. “The average person there might not even really know what skiing is.” He worked several summer jobs to raise cash and secured sponsorships with a distributor of Japanese apples and a couple of other businesses. So far, it’s not nearly enough.

“I only have two legs,” he says with a smile. “How many skis do I need? I need money for coaches, I need money for accommodation. I have a wife and a family who have had to make do while I devote more time to training.”

Recently, Nkrumah-Acheampong came up with a clever grass-roots investment scheme: He’s offering to sell spots—literally—on his custom-made leopard-print ski suit. “For a minimum donation of eight dollars,” he explains, “people can have their name on one of my spots as I compete. It’s like they will be right there with me on Whistler.”

Sitting down to lunch in the Snow Centre’s café, he orders fish and chips and quietly says a prayer of thanks before eating. “God can’t make me do well in the Olympics—that is up to me— but he can keep me well and help give me the strength to do my best,” he says. British bookmakers William Hill have given the Snow Leopard a 500-1 shot of coming away with a medal.

“Success to me would be to beat at least ten people,” the Snow Leopard says. “I admit that I am an underdog and a novelty. But I hope I’m more like the Jamaican bobsled team and less like Eddie the Eagle. If I can beat a path so that others can follow, I’ll be happy.”

Whistler, British Columbia–based GRANT STODDARD’s trainer hasn’t helped his Olympic chances.

One Response to “The Believer”

  1. Alana Says:
    January 4th, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    This is such a great story! How can we contact Kwame to sponsor a spot?

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