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'Exotic' skiers defy the odds to take to slopes

Virgin Islands' Jasmine Campbell competes during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 1 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014
Virgin Islands' Jasmine Campbell competes during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 1 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014

They cross the finish line well behind the favourites, but for a whole group of ski racers from Brazil, Togo or the US Virgin Islands, making it to the bottom is like winning.

Little funding, few results to show for their efforts and even fewer fans: these girls have none of the support enjoyed by stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Anna Fenninger or Maria Hoefl-Riesch.

But they all shared the same emotions as they filed past dozens of journalists from around the world after the women's giant slalom on Tuesday -- happiness at being at the Olympics, awe at competing with their idols and hope that they could inspire youngsters to follow their lead.

"That was way more exciting than I thought it would be, I just feel so happy to be here. I'm really overwhelmed," said Jasmine Campbell, competing at the Olympics for the first time for the US Virgin Islands.

Alessia Afi Dipol looks and sounds like an Italian, but on Tuesday she raced for the west African country of Togo.

"It's an honour for me because Sochi is the first Olympic Winter Games for Togo. It has been really fun," she said.

The bubbly 18-year-old used to compete for India but switched to Togo -- where her father owns a sports clothing factory -- after India was suspended from the Games movement due to corruption allegations.

One better-known athlete competing -- although more renowned for her success as a violinist than for her skiing ability -- was Vanessa Mae, racing under the name Vanessa Vanakorn for Thailand.

Togo's Alessia Afi Dipol reacts in the finish area during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 2 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014
Togo's Alessia Afi Dipol reacts in the finish area during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 2 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014

The Singapore-born British former child prodigy finished last of those who made it down both runs.

Unlike several competitors who switched allegiance because they could not qualify for their own national teams, Sophia Ralli hails from and trains in Greece.

"It's big for us to be here," said the 25-year-old from Naousa, near Thessaloniki.

"We are not so good skiers because we don't have snow all year round in Greece so we try to make the best of it."

- Starstruck -

Many were more than a little starstruck at the thought of competing with the likes of Tina Maze of Slovenia, who won Tuesday's race -- her second gold of the Games.

"It's a little bit strange because until yesterday I watched them on TV and now I'm here with them," said Dipol.

"They are the stars, they're in the World Cup, they're my idols from when I was young," added Portugal's Swiss-born Camille Dias.

Campbell acknowledged: "Obviously there's a difference in skill."

"But I've had a few conversations with a couple of them and they are just such kind, generous, welcoming people. They make you feel very at ease and not nearly as intimidated as I probably should be," she said after chatting with Olympic champion Hoefl-Riesch and US stars Shiffrin and Julia Mancuso.

Without the kind of backing given by traditional ski nations, many have had to scrape together funds to make it to Sochi.

Campbell received an Olympic scholarship.

"It was extremely helpful. Any sort of endeavour especially at this level is extremely expensive and time-consuming, so to have that kind of financial support was crucial to my success here."

Greece's Sophia Ralli competes during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 1 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014
Greece's Sophia Ralli competes during the Women's Alpine Skiing Giant Slalom Run 1 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014

Dias said she received some funding from Portugal but added: "I hope to have more next year or after." Being on the international stage would hopefully help, she said.

Swiss-based Brazilian Maya Harrisson admitted she was not sure how many people were following her exploits in Rio or Sao Paulo.

"I'm happy that people know that there's also alpine skiing, that they start knowing about winter sports," she said. "I'm doing some interviews, I'm doing some live TV so I hope I have some fans!"

These "exotic" racers all finished in the bottom 15 out of 67 athletes on Tuesday. But they did finish both runs and for many, who only rarely get such attention, this was the biggest goal.

"It's fantastic that all the smaller nations get a chance, that's what the whole Olympic movement is about, the celebration of human excellence and spirit and just having a go really," said Australia's Lavinia Chrystal.

"It's really good for sport in general and I hope that we at home have been able to inspire some young kids to take up winter sports."

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