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 West Africa 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.
Lion and rabbit
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.”
© Agence France-Presse