Ethiopian to compete in winter games
Robel Teklemariam is changing the climate about skiers. It took three years of convincing, but the 1993 Colorado Rocky Mountain School graduate is going to compete in the 2006 Winter Olympics.Even though he splits time between Madison, Wis., and Crested Butte, Teklemariam won’t be wearing the red, white and blue of the United States when he goes to Turin, Italy.He won’t be surrounded by a bunch of teammates either.Teklemariam will be skiing for Ethiopia.Yes, Ethiopia, the African country.Not surprisingly, Teklemariam is the first Ethiopian-born citizen to represent that country at the Winter Olympic Games.Unlike, the famed Jamaican bobsled team of a few Olympiads back, Teklemariam, 31, is a legitimate skier. Resuming serious training and competition three years ago, Teklemariam now hopes to compete in both alpine and Nordic events in Italy, but his main focus will be on the Nordic event.Teklemariam’s former coach at CRMS, Mark Clark, said he has skill.”He’s a legitimate athlete in that sport,” Clark said. “There have been athletes from nonskiing countries that have just walked around the course, but that’s not Robel.”He’s one of the better athletes I’ve ever coached here,” said Clark, who’s been affiliated with the school for 27 years.During his senior year at CRMS, Teklemariam was ranked as one of the top-3 cross-country skiers in the region.Teklemariam’s goals at Turin are simple: Earn respect for Ethiopia as a skiing country and turn in some good performances.”I don’t want to be a novelty,” he said. “What I want to do is bring awareness that athletes from non-skiing countries can compete in the Olympics.”Earning a medal will be a real uphill test for Teklemariam, but he’s going to compete to the best of his abilities.”I’m a pretty competitive person,” he said. “I’d love to win, but I’m a realist. I want to race well enough to equal other skiing countries.”
Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Teklemariam said the country does get snow and actually has an elevational high point of more than 15,000 feet. But it wasn’t until he came to the U.S. that he strapped on skis. In 1983 his family moved to New York after his mother took a job at the United Nations.Attending a boarding school in nearby Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics, Teklemariam discovered the joy of skiing – mostly the downhill variety. During spring break of his eighth-grade year, Teklemariam came to Carbondale to check out CRMS. After seeing the campus and the lure of the Rocky Mountains, Teklemariam was hooked.”After I saw (CRMS), I didn’t think about going anywhere else. The mountains were right there and the skiing was solid. I thought there was a lot to like about this place.”Clark said that when Teklemariam arrived at CRMS, there was work to be done.”When he first started he had mostly an alpine background. Then he expressed an interest in skiing cross country,” Clark said. “There were some learning years but he became a very good skier. He was a real treat to work with.”This week, Teklemariam is staying at CRMS in the faculty housing area and has visited with Clark about training and the Olympic dream being realized. Teklemariam is training at the Spring Gulch Nordic Center just outside of town.During his four years in Carbondale, Teklemariam was a member of CRMS’s alpine and Nordic ski teams. His senior year, he earned All-American honors at the 1993 Junior National Olympics.His success at CRMS earned him a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. It was the university’s ski program’s first full-ride athletic scholarship.During one point of his college career, Teklemariam was ranked among the top-30 college skiers in the nation.
Upon graduating from New Hampshire, Teklemariam took a long break from competitive skiing.Moving back to Colorado, he worked as an alpine ski and snowboarding instructor for Club Med at resorts in Copper Mountain and Crested Butte for eight years.It took romance to relight Teklemariam’s competitive spark three years ago. A woman he was dating encouraged him to pursue skiing at the Olympics – something that was mentioned to him years before in Lake Placid.The only bump was that Ethiopia didn’t recognize skiing as an Olympic sport. That didn’t stop Teklemariam. Over the next three years, he began a step-by-step process toward representing Ethiopia at the Olympics. He finally saw his dream culminated when he received his license in November.”I was excited that the Ethiopian Olympic Committee gave him the chance to ski in the Olympics,” Clark said. “It was the end of a lot of planning and big dreams on the part of Robel.”There was plenty of bureaucratic red tape to battle.”I had to get support from the Ethiopian counsel first,” he said. “After going to (Los Angeles) to talk with them, they supported me.”The first approval advanced Teklemariam’s appeal to the country’s Olympic committee, the Federation of International Skiing and the Ethiopian ministry of youth sports.To clear that obstacle, Teklemariam had to establish a ski federation for Ethiopia, along with by-laws for future skiers to follow. To help speed the process, Teklemariam elicited the help of his younger brother, Yoseph.Yoseph is now the vice chairman of the Ethiopian National Ski Federation. His hard work led to the Ethiopian Olympic Committee giving Robel its approval and support to compete for the country in the 2006 Olympics.
Clark said it’s very impressive that the process wasn’t really about making the Olympic team but actually having to create the team from scratch.”The bureaucracy can be one of the hardest things to overcome,” Clark said. “It’s not easy for this to happen, and I’m just in awe that Robel made it happen.”Teklemariam may be a realist, but he still has big dreams for Turin.”I’m not going to be content to just compete,” Teklemariam said of his upcoming Olympic experience. “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I want to finish among the top 75-80 percent – that’s a realistic goal. Then, I want to build on that.”Teklemariam’s vision, through the ENSF, is to make Ethiopia a permanent part of the ski racing community. Ultimately, he would love to someday see an Ethiopian skier on the podium in the Olympics.”So far, all I’ve got is good positive response in e-mails,” he said of putting Ethiopia on the skiing map. “Ethiopia is a massive country with 77 million people. It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m representing the entire country. Right now, it’s fuel. But, I’ll be thinking about that at race time.””It’s pretty powerful, and it’s great for Robel because he has really made it happen,” Clark added.This won’t be the first time that Africa will be represented in the Olympics. South Africa first sent a group of figure skaters in 1960. Senegal made its first appearance in the Winter Olympics in 19984 and Kenya did so in 1998. Algeria will be make its winter debut this year.In the immediate future, Teklemariam has a couple of major events on his competition calendar. Next week, he will compete in the U.S. Nationals at Soldier’s Hollow near Park City, Utah, the venue for the Nordic events for the 2002 Winter Olympics. After that he will compete in a unique race in Madison called the Capitol Sprints. Snow will be trucked in and placed around the Wisconsin state capitol building and competitors then race around the building on speed skis.The 2006 Winter Olympics are scheduled for Feb. 10-26.As a one-man Ethiopian Winter Olympic team, Teklemariam said he will probably have the honor of carrying the Ethiopian flag at the opening and closing ceremonies.”I guess if I’m the only one, I’ll be carrying the flag,” he said with a smile.Managing editor Dale Shrull contributed to this story.
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