Utah’s Olympic melting pot: Utahns compete for multiple countries in Pyeongchang Games

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Valley University sprinter Akwasi Frimpong carries the flag of Ghana during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony at Olympic Stadium Friday, February 9, 2018.

Pyeongchang, South Korea • Akwasi Frimpong has been taking full advantage of his first Olympic experience. The skeleton slider says nobody in the athlete village has traded more collectable pins. He danced and cried as he led his country into Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony last week, waving the red, yellow and green flag of Ghana.

“It’s very emotional to carry the flag of your country,” said Frimpong, who will be the first-ever Ghanaian to compete in an Olympic skeleton race. “There are millions of people back home watching me, and I am giving them hope.”

There were at least two people watching from the place he now calls home. His wife and 9-month-old daughter tuned into Frimpong’s historic moment, watching on a television set in Salt Lake City.

You can go to just about any venue at these Olympics — from the halfpipe in Jeongseon to the sliding track in Pyeongchang to the skating oval in Gangneung — and find someone with an 801 or 435 area code. Their stories and journey to the Games are as different as the flags they wave, but their paths all cross in Utah.

“I call myself a Colombian-Utahn,” says cross-country skier Sebastian Uprimny.

Growing up in South America, Uprimny became enamored of the idea of competing for his country in the Winter Olympics after watching a movie called “Jamaica Bajo Cero.” The title translates literally as “Jamaica Under Zero.” Most people know it as “Cool Runnings,” Disney’s telling of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.

UTAH’S INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC CONNECTIONS <br>Snorri Einarsson • Cross-country skiing, Iceland (University of Utah graduate) <br>Dominic Demschar • Alpine skiing, Australia (University of Utah graduate, grew up in Park City) <br>Akwasi Frimpong • Skeleton, Ghana (Former Utah Valley University track & field athlete) <br>Sebastian Uprimny • Cross-country skiing, Colombia (Salt Lake City resident) <br>Bubba Newby • Freeskiing, Ireland (Part of Park City Ski & Snowboard Club) <br>Liz Swaney • Freeskiing, Hungary (Part of Park City Ski & Snowboard Club) <br>Isabel Atkin • Freeskiing, Great Britain (Part of Park City Ski & Snowboard Club) <br>Seamus O’Connor • Snowboarder, Ireland (Part of Park City Ski & Snowboard Club) <br>Adam Lambert • Snowboardcross, Australia (Part of Park City Ski & Snowboard Club)

Uprimny moved to Utah to live with an uncle and study English in 2001, just before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. During the 2002 Games, he worked as a translator for some French journalists, helping them cover, among other sports, cross-country skiing.

Uprimny put his dream on a back burner for a while as he started a family and worked to build his business, Inlingua Utah. Then he decided about a year and a half ago it was now or never. He dedicated himself to a training regimen and financed trips to Turkey and Finland to qualify as Colombia’s first-ever Olympian in cross-country skiing.

He is one of four Colombian athletes competing in these Games. Two others, speedskaters Pedro Caucil and Laura Gomez, have lived in Utah for about two years, training at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns and preparing for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

To send him off properly to Pyeongchang, Uprimny’s friends and family threw him a party last week at Pizza Nono in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood.

“I’m representing my country,” he said, “but I’m a local.”

In Ireland, people call Brendan Newby “the Corker from Cork.” Back in Orem, everybody just calls him Bubba.

The 21-year-old was born in Ireland, where his father was a professor at a university. The Newbys moved back to Utah when Bubba was a child. He learned to ski with his family at Park City — and he taught himself his first freestyle tricks by watching YouTube videos.

With only an outside chance of making the U.S. halfpipe team, Newby now is using his dual citizenship to compete for Ireland.

“But growing up in Utah really made all this possible,” he said. “Having such good teams and training facilities in my backyard makes a huge difference. All the 2002 Olympic venues are still used as training facilities, so that provides world-class facilities to get everything dialed in. In Utah, we are surrounded by Olympians, and it really helps seeing people that have accomplished what I am trying to accomplish become more obtainable.

“The spirit of the 2002 Olympic Games is still alive and well in Utah, and it has a lot to do with why I wanted to become an Olympian.”

Those facilities attract athletes from around the world — from Iceland, Hungary and Great Britain — to the Wasatch Front. Icelandic cross-country skier Snorri Einarsson is a University of Utah graduate. So is Australian alpine skier Dominic Demschar.

“The facilities are just better than anywhere else,” Demschar said during a stop in Park City before heading to his second Olympics. “People are really taking advantage of it.”

Frimpong’s journey took him from Ghana to the Netherlands. He trained to become a sprinter and, after a decadelong immigration battle, left for the United States on a track scholarship at Utah Valley University. Frimpong helped finance his Olympic dream by selling vacuums door to door. Now he wants to sell something else.

“The job is to fulfill my dream, to break barriers; the job is to write history for Ghana as the first skeleton athlete,” he said. “And the job is to gain experience for the 2022 Olympics because this is not going to be my last Olympics.”

Frimpong started to live that dream last week, with his family watching back in Salt Lake City.

“They are going watch it at home,” he said before marching into Olympic Stadium, “and have a bit of a tear, and I’ll probably have a tear myself.”

Training day one done. Good fun. Stoked to do it again tomorrow.

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