Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong knows a thing or two about sacrifice: he spent two years selling vacuum cleaners to finance his unlikely journey to the Olympics – as a skeleton racer.
After previously failing to qualify as a sprinter and in the bobsleigh, he is set to become only the second athlete from the West African country to compete at a Winter Games in Pyeongchang, six years after his Olympic hopes looked dead and buried.
Frimpong, who moved to the Netherlands when he was just eight, missed the 2012 London Olympics through injury and was a reserve on the Dutch bobsleigh team in Sochi four years ago.
The 31-year-old then switched to the crackpot sport of skeleton to try to qualify for the olympics for his native Ghana. But he admits he was terrified the first time he flung himself down an icy mountain head-first.
“It was scary, very scary,” Frimpong told AFP in an interview after training in Pyeongchang.
“You’re literally like ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to die?’ You can almost see your coffin waiting for you at the finish. When you make it to the bottom you feel a little bit more confident. But it was definitely painful in the beginning.”
Before following in the footsteps of Ghana’s “Snow Leopard” Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, who competed in slalom skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Frimpong struggled to convince sponsors he was serious and few gave him the time of day.
“When I missed the bobsled in 2013, I was looking for a temporary job to pay for my cell phone bill and I saw an ad about selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door,” said Frimpong, breaking into a broad smile.
“In my first month I sold 18 of them in 15 days and in my second I won a gold-digger award for selling 32 vacuums in 18 days. I paid for my season selling vacuum cleaners!”
Frimpong, who turns 32 at the weekend before the start of the Olympic skeleton competition, lived with his grandmother in Ghana as a young child after his mother moved to the Netherlands in search of a better life for her family.
He joined his mother there but lived as an illegal immigrant and his skeleton helmet, which shows a rabbit escaping from a lion’s jaws, tells the story of Frimpong’s difficult road to the Olympics.
“My old sprint coach said you have a lion and a rabbit in a cage, and the rabbit’s trying to escape when the gate opens,” he explained.
“I was the rabbit and the lion was Dutch immigration hunting me down, trying to get me out of the country. All the negative things were basically the lion and I could never escape it.”
But from such troubled beginnings, Frimpong looks poised to become a smash hit in South Korea this month.
“I’ve been dreaming of the Olympics for 15 years,” he said.
“There are hard moments obviously, but I kept going because my grandma told me: ‘Akwasi, what you need for success is already in you!’
“It’s a matter of believing in yourself, having the will to never give up.”
The reaction to his success in football-mad Ghana has been “overwhelming”, said Frimpong.
But his immediate objective is to gain experience for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
“My goal when I started was always 2022,” he said. “Africa has never won a winter medal before and Ghana has never won a gold medal in the olympics. It would be a great honour to do that.”
“But first I want to break down barriers, to show that black people can do this as well,” he added.
“I was always getting eaten by the lion, but I’ve finally become the rabbit my coach always wanted me to be.”
South Korea’s Jang Hye-Ji launched 18 days of competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Thursday by sliding the first mixed doubles curling stone in Olympic history down the ice.
While the official opening ceremonies are not until Friday night, the first mixed doubles curling event in the Olympic Games began a day early to open 18 days of competition that will conclude with the February 25 closing cermonies.
Jang took the opportunity to make Olympic history in her opening round-robin match match alongside Lee Ki-Jeong against Finland’s Oona Kauste and Tomi Rantamaeki before about 2,500 spectators at Gangneung Curling Centre.
Other opening round-robin matches sent Canada against Norway, China against reigning world champion Switzerland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia against the United States.
The Russians – the 2016 world champion husband-and-wife team of Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and Anastasia Bryzgalova – are competing under the Olympic flag after Russia was banned from the Games for major doping violations at the 2014 Sochi Games.
The OAR duo launched their medal quest against US siblings Matt and Becca Hamilton, inspiring a solitary “Russ-i-a” yell from the crowd after scoring two points in the second end.
After seven round-robin matches through Sunday, the top four teams will reach Monday’s semi-finals with medal matches set for Tuesday.
Ghana-born Maame Biney has become an Olympic sweetheart with an infectious smile and teen joy at being the first female African-American Olympian in short-track speed skating.
But don’t mess with her when she takes the ice at Pyeongchang, starting with Saturday’s 500m qualifying – her game face will be on.
“It’s like, ‘don’t be in my way because I’m probably going to kill you’,” Biney said before laughing and then being shocked, fearful her honesty might offend.
“I think I’m fierce and strong. Sometimes I overreact to things… When I get on that line, I’ll be like ‘Holy Moley. I’m actually here. This is the Olympics.”
Usually not one for attention, Biney has soaked up the South Korean spotlight.
“It has been crazy, like cameras everywhere. It has been awesome and I’m going to soak it all up like a sponge,” she said. “I just keep smiling. Smiles bring smiles to people. And I’m happy.”
Her journey from Africa to Pyeongchang began at age five when she went to visit her dad, fell in love with America and decided to stay, something she sees as a secret to her success.
“I think it stems from the fact I don’t take things for granted,” she said. “Things (in Ghana) aren’t as good as things in America.”
Her father, Kweku, was suddenly a single parent. He suggested she try figure skating. The coach suggest short track.
“My dad has been a big part of my journey,” she said. “He moved from Ghana to America to get a better life. He never expected me to stay as long as I did. He has given up a lot to make my dream come true.”
After she turned 18 last week, Kweku bought his daughter her long-awaited first phone, which brought fist pumps and smiles.
“It was a big moment,” she said.
She speaks by phone weekly to her mother in Ghana and plans her first visit since 2014 later this year.
Biney has already texted Ghana’s first Winter Olympian, Pyeongchang skeleton slider Akwasi Frimpong.
“We’re going to meet up and hang out,” she said. “It’s going to be so cool.”
Apolo Ohno, a US star who won eight Olympic short track medals, calls Biney the new face of American short track.
“I’m glad he said that,” Biney said. “That’s so cool.”
And she takes her African-American pioneer role seriously.
“It feels very inspiring because I want to inspire kids all over the world,” she said. “I want to give them the inspiration to do whatever they love.”
After the US Olympic trials, she went from 500 Instagram followers to 5,000 in a week. But excitement turned to overload.
“I wanted to take it all in and that was too much for me. I took just a sip and I was drinking and drinking,” she said. “It kind of overwhelmed me but I’m getting better at it.”
Biney, who spent the past seven months in Utah training, will attend the University of Utah as she prepares for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. But her focus now is here.
“I feel very good and really excited,” she said. “Everything is so big. Short track is a big sport in Korea so the crowd is going to be big.”