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For Some Athletes, the Path to the Olympics Requires More Ingenuity Than Skill

From competing for other countries to utilizing little-known loopholes, an athlete's route to the Winter Games is not always cut and dried.

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On January 13, a lanky skier flew across the giant slalom finish line at the National Ski Championships, held in the tiny country of Liechtenstein. He looked anxiously at his time and the scoreboard. He finished in seventh place, but it was a historic run: Benjamin Alexander had just qualified for the Winter Olympics … as Jamaica’s ski team of one. 

Also Read: The Controversial Reason Why the U.S. Olympic Alpine Team Is the Smallest It’s Been In Decades

There’s more to Alexander that’s atypical as an Olympic skier, beyond being a British citizen representing a Caribbean nation that never sees snow. At 6’7”, he’s astonishingly tall for a ski racer, and at 38 years old, the Black Brit holds a decade and change over most of his competitors—who are almost exclusively white, as ski racers tend to be. 

And there’s one more thing: until just six years ago, he had never once been on skis. 

While Alexander is something of an anomaly in the world of competitive ski racing, he’s not an anomaly in general in the Olympics. We tend to think of the Games as the pinnacle of merit and skill in athleticism, and that there are particular trajectories to becoming an Olympian—especially in disciplines like skiing and snowboarding, which require technical gear, specialized training facilities, the money to access those, and (of course) the presence of snow. But there are some non-traditional paths to the Olympics that pass few of those traditional landmarks—and sometimes none at all.

Representing Unlikely Countries

Born into a working-class family north of London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, Alexander is a trained electronic engineer. But he forewent the world of business suits to spend the last fifteen years of his life as a sought-after international DJ, playing everywhere from Dubai to Rio de Janeiro to Burning Man. He chased summer the whole time. In 2016, when a friend brought him to DJ for a trip at Mica Heliskiing in a remote British Columbia mountain range, he fell in love for the first time with the concept of winter. 

After learning to ski and, as a Black man of Jamaican descent, fielding the same Cool Runnings joke over and over on the slopes, he thought: actually, why not try to make the Olympics? It could be possible—if he skied for his father’s nation, where he wouldn’t have to compete for a spot on a team with other athletes who’d been skiing since they could walk. He transitioned out of DJing and spent upwards of $60,000 of his own funds traveling to qualifying races.

Sarah Schleper competes for Mexico during the Women’s Giant Slalom on day three of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Alexander isn’t the first to go this route of choosing a country without a stacked ski team (or no ski team to speak of) as a means to qualify. In fact, there’s a loophole that the International Olympic Committee intentionally built in to keep Europe and North America from dominating the Winter Games, that allows special qualification criteria for countries without skiers ranking in world’s top 500—which usually applies to countries without a wealth of snow to produce skiers. The trick to leveraging that loophole, though, is that aspiring athletes often need to possess and commit the necessary financial resources and free time to attend enough events to qualify, much the way Alexander did.

In some ways, Alexander’s story echoes Vanessa Vanakorn’s, a British pop violinist. A child prodigy who picked up the instrument at age five, she made millions in the niche she created for “sexy violin playing” before abandoning music to pursue a teenage dream: being a ski bum, she told Reuters. After a series of questionably rigged races set up by her own entourage, Vanakorn qualified to ski in giant slalom for her father’s homeland of Thailand in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi; at 35, she was fourteen years older than the next oldest competitor. She only spent six months training and finished dead last in her event. She spent her time in Sochi dining with Vladimir Putin and staying at accommodations outside the Olympic village, which wouldn’t allow her to bring her pet Chihuahua. 

Not all athletes competing for unlikely countries are less experienced, though. Take Eileen Gu and Sarah Schleper. Freestyle skiing phenom Gu, born in the U.S. but skiing for her mother’s native China, is a generational talent who would have made the U.S. Ski Team, hands down. But the 18-year-old made the decision to ski for China a couple years ago, knowing how she could help grow the sport and inspire Chinese women and girls. And Schleper, the 42-year-old alpine ski racer, who grew up in Vail, is representing Mexico for the second time in the 2022 Winter Olympics—which will be her sixth Games, having skied for the United States on the U.S. Ski Team. But as she started a family, she didn’t feel supported by her American coaches in taking on both motherhood and training, she told the Aspen Times. In qualifying for her husband’s home country of Mexico, where she acquired citizenship, she’s found the space to accommodate all of her priorities.

From the Fringe, and Beyond

We tend to think of Olympic skiers as coming from well-known meccas with proud ski history and shiny training facilities: Vail, Park City, Zermatt, Whistler. Not abandoned mining outposts or gritty railroad towns. But the new Mavericks film chronicles the unlikely rise of freestyle skiing in Montana. It’s here that Eric Bergoust hid from ski patrols on Missoula’s tiny Snowbowl to practice tricks before bringing home gold and setting a world record in aerials at the 1998 Olympics; and where Byron Wilson built jumps at night on Homestake Pass outside Butte, airing them by the light of passing semis, before winning bronze in freestyle at the 2000 Olympics.

Now, Brian Rice, 16, is exploding from even more fringe roots: he learned to snowboard at the age of four in a ditch outside his home north of Detroit, on a starter board his parents bought at a grocery store. By the age of eleven, Rice was already winning every slopestyle and big air event he competed in, earning him his first invite to Nationals. While the pandemic interrupted his Team USA recruitment for Beijing, Rice is aiming to be the first Black American snowboarder, and the first National Brotherhood of Skiers member, to represent the USA at a Winter Olympics, at the 2026 Games. 

And Other Little-Heard-Of Routes 

When Carly Margulies makes her Olympic appearance in ski half-pipe, her first run won’t just be her first run in Beijing. It will be her first competition run in over two years, thanks to her exceedingly rare qualification due to an injury-protected ranking from 2019 that carried her as the fourth-ranked American woman in the world—a ranking no other American woman has usurped in that time, which handed Margulies the fourth spot on the Olympic spot on the U.S. women’s half-pipe team. Over the course of eight years, Margulies has torn her ACL and meniscus on both legs multiple times; she returned to skiing from her seventh surgery in mid-January of this year. 

Benjamin Alexander doesn’t expect to bring home a medal for Jamaica. It’s clear that he’s motivated in part by the novelty of being part of the Olympics—he doesn’t intend to compete again after Beijing. But he also talks about wanting to show the world that you don’t have to tick the long-established elitist boxes of skiing to join its highest ranks. And at the end of the day, if skiing takes another step toward inclusivity because of these athletes who rise from the peripheries of possibility, then that is nothing but a positive thing.