Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong - Ghana's Ski Champion
AMONG the competitors in this week's British Land National Ski Championships in the French resort of Meribel has been Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong of Ghana. With a permanent grin fixed to his face, and a friendly word for anyone and everyone, the lone Ghanaian has been a popular figure, even if he hasn't come particularly close to challenging Finlay Mickel, Noel Baxter and James Leuzinger, the three world-class British skiers who have hogged the top step of the podium.
Such is Kwame's demeanour that visitors to Meribel might have been forgiven for assuming that he is a beginner; or that he is on holiday, having fun, and simply enjoying, like so many thousands of others, the experience of being in the Alps and skiing against the spectacular backdrop of high, jagged mountains, vast blue sky and blazing sunshine.
But beginners do not participate in events run under the auspices of the Federation of International Skiing (FIS) and with world ranking points at stake, do they?
And another thing: how many skiers from Ghana are there on the international circuit? The answer is none - ever. No athlete from Ghana, for that matter, has ever even competed in the Winter Olympics, and if Kwame succeeds in his ambitious goal of making it to Turin in 2006, then he could emulate the Jamaican bobsleigh team whose exploits at the 1988 Olympics were immortalised in the film Cool Runnings. So yes, watch out for Kwame, the Movie, or, perhaps, The Snow Leopard. This will be explained later.
The Kwame story begins in, of all places, Glasgow. But it is the even more unlikely setting of Milton Keynes that will feature more prominently in the movie. Kwame was born in Glasgow, he explains, but he lived there for just under a year before returning with his family - his father was a professor of leisure and tourism at Glasgow University - to Ghana.
Twenty-eight years later, after spells living in Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia, and working in tourism consultancy and in a game reserve, Kwame arrived in Milton Keynes and landed a job as a receptionist at the Xscape Indoor Ski Centre, later becoming assistant manager. One of the perks of the job was free access to the artificial snow slope. "I'd never seen snow before," says Kwame, "but when I first tried skiing I found it easy."
One of those who observed the Ghanaian's auspicious debut was Dave Jacobs, a ski instructor from Linlithgow employed by the snow dome. "He definitely has a talent," says Jacobs. "That was obvious from the start; he's fit, he's strong and fast - he's done sub-11 seconds for the 100m - but what also soon became obvious was his determination and dedication.
"Not long after he started I sat down with him and he told me he wanted to go to the Olympics. I thought it was a joke. But I told him straight what he would have to do if that's what he really wanted. Next thing, he phoned and told me he'd quit his job."
Jacobs' advice to Kwame had been very simple: to base himself in the Alps. He accompanied him on his first trip there, in December 2003, when Val d'Isere provided his first sight of the mountains, and his first experience on real snow. "I went for three days' skiing," says Kwame, "and I enjoyed the long runs. My first impression was of lots of space, but my problem at first was that when I got to a lip I'd slow down because I didn't know what was on the other side. It wasn't like Milton Keynes. Now I fly over - if there's someone on the other side, well.
"I am not fearless in my skiing," he adds, turning serious. "It's a calculated fearlessness. I always keep some fear in me because that's what keeps me alive. If you're not afraid you're foolish - you've got to be afraid of skiing."
This is not borne out by Jacobs' tale of Kwame's first run on the open piste. He initially seemed afraid mainly of the height of the chairlift (Kwame himself glosses over this) but at the top Jacobs advised him to adopt a tuck position and aim straight down the mountain. He says he reached 50mph on that first run. "Since he started," continues Jacobs, "he's been on skis everyday."
At the start of this season Jacobs set him up with a move to Meribel. It means that his wife and one-year old daughter sit at home in Milton Keynes while he pursues the points he needs to qualify for the Olympics. "At the moment I have to wait for races to come to me," he says. "I can't go chasing races because I don't have money."
In skiing points are awarded according to a complicated system based on time rather than placing. The points Kwame scores depends on his proximity to the winner, and who the winner is. He needs 140 points but this has thus far proved an elusive target. He believes he can do it, that he's on track, and that he might have done it this week. Alas, no.
"It's an experiment," he says, "to see if someone my age [he turned 30 in December], who took up skiing on real snow a year ago, can do what it's taken these guys years. But I need points so badly. I entered a race this weekend [yesterday and today] in Auron, but I don't know how to get there.
"That would be a perfectly easy race for me to go and get my 140 points. if I could get them I would be singing," he grins. And as it happens, assistance was at hand. Kwame found someone travelling to the race, and able to give him a lift. Perhaps this will be the weekend that the Olympic dream is realised.
But what if it isn't? "No, I'll make it to the Olympics," he responds. "There's not an 'if.'"
He is grinning again, but such self-assurance has done his cause no harm. He lists an impressive array of sponsors. They include easyJet, who provide free flights, the Meribel Tourist Office and the resort, which grants free access to the slopes; and all his clothing and equipment, including six pairs of skis, is supplied by Head, Scott and Bloc. "I also get a bit of money from Barometer, the nicest pub here in Meribel," he says earnestly. "But I really, really need more sponsorship."
On Friday he could be seen at the finish area studying A4 sheets of paper with the representative from clothing manufacturers Vist. These featured photocopies of leopards, and the legend "Ghana Ski Team".
This is the next stage of Kwame's project. "Since I started," he explains, "we have two more skiers from Ghana - a 16-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy. Hopefully they'll be better than me. But we want as many people involved as we can - we want a team."
And that team will cut a dash in their leopard skin print outfits, with matching helmets and skis - this is the plan, anyway, and the man from Vist nods enthusiastically as Kwame outlines his vision.
"I'd like to bring other Ghana skiers here to train and do junior competition. So far, only one of them has skied on snow. I hope we'll be known as the Snow Leopards. There are leopards in Ghana, but no snow leopards," he smiles broadly. "The leopard represents speed, agility, power."
Already the new Ghana Ski Federation has a head coach and president - Jacobs. "I'd like him to be here too," says Kwame. "He's been fantastic, getting me sponsors and setting me up over here. And once I finish all I've got to do here I'm really looking forward to visiting Glasgow. I haven't been since I left, so I will take a trip there with Dave."