Utah Olympic Park • The Samoan ie lavalava — a sarong-like cloth worn for ceremonial purposes — tied around Nathan Ikon Crumpton’s waist set him apart from the other sliders bundled up in puffy jackets and snow pants at the awards ceremony for the North America’s Cup skeleton races held here this week. Bright orange and floral, it was eye-catching — but not nearly as much so as his results.
Three times the notes of the little-known American Samoa national anthem chimed over Olympic Park on Tuesday because of Crumpton. The Park City resident tied for first in Monday’s opening race, making him the first American Samoan athlete to win a gold medal in a winter sport. He followed that up with outright wins in the races held Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.
“When I crossed the finish line, there’s a clock, and I could see a No. 1 by my name. It’s a huge sigh of relief,” Crumpton, 34, said. “You hit those pads going 60 mph, but it doesn’t matter because the number said 1.”
More than the medals around his neck and perhaps even more than a place in history, what really mattered to Crumpton and many of the athletes racing this week is how many points they accumulated toward their World Cup standing. Though the NorAm Cup races are two tiers below the World Cup, the circuit can serve as an incubator for aspiring Olympians — especially ones competing for nations not known for their winter sports prowess.
American Samoa is one. It has been represented in the Winter Olympics just once, by a two-man bobsled team in 1994. Crumpton, who competed for Team USA in an Olympic test event prior to the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, and still holds the American start record for that track, would like to give the Pacific island nation a second entry.
Another such country is Ghana. The African nation has twice been represented in the Winter Olympics, in 2010 by alpine skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong and in 2018 by slider Akwasi Frimpong, but has also never won a medal. Frimpong, now based in Salt Lake City, is driven to change that and was also on track this week looking to improve his World Cup rankings.
Like Crumpton, Frimpong can only qualify for the Olympics if he ranks in the top 60 in the World Cup standings and is among the best of sliders who hail from countries not considered within the top eight in the sport when the qualifying cutoff is made, which is about a month before the games. Frimpong arrived at Olympic Park ranked No. 71, and seemed slightly disheartened by Monday’s results of 16th and 12th place. But he leapt in the air and exclaimed “Yes!” following his final run Tuesday as he watched himself move up in the race standings from 16th to 12th.
Frimpong, 33, said with about 10 races left in his season, both on the NorAm and Continental circuits, he’s still experimenting. For his last run Tuesday, he switched his sled setup from a new one he is tinkering with to one that is tried and true, and it paid off.
“I’m really happy with it,” he said. “I’m becoming a student of the sport. I make mistakes, I want to get better. I’m getting better the second runs, I need to do that more the first runs, but also being bold enough to say, hey, let’s make a change. Take a risk. It’s not just about today. It’s about February 2022. And you can only get better by trial and errors.”
Experience may have played a part in Crumpton’s success. Some athletes are just kicking off their skeleton careers. Team USA’s Lauren McDonald, who two years ago was a ninth-grade teacher at Bloomfield High in New Jersey, placed third Monday in just the fourth race of her career. Frimpong made his foray into the sport three years ago after competing at a high level in track and bobsled for the Netherlands. But Crumpton has the advantage of nine years in the sport, including eight with the USA team that often practiced at Olympic Park. A falling out with his former team prompted his switch this year to competing for American Samoa.
Experience isn’t everything, though. Chinese slider Zhu Yangqi, a 19-year-old who also only began competing this season, swept all three women’s races.
“Good track,” she said. “Easy track.”
Organizers will be happy to hear that review. A World Cup bobsled and skeleton event scheduled to be held at the Olympic Park course late last month had to be moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., after a cooling pump failed. Retrofitted pumps meant for the Whistler Sliding Centre in Canada are getting the track through this week’s events, which run through Wednesday with bobsled events, while track managers wait for customized pumps to arrive.
Monday’s practice sessions were cut short and races were held to just one run instead of two, but those issues were attributed to a recent snowfall rather than cooling issues. By Tuesday, everything seemed to have come together. The sun even burst out, making for a bright awards ceremony — particularly when Crumpton was atop the podium.
Race 3 — 1t. Nathan Crumpton, ASA, 50.92; 1t. Zhu Haifeng, CHN, 50.92; 3. Yin Zheng, CHN, 51.04; also, 8. Chris Strup, USA, 51.86; 12. Kyler Sultemeirer, USA, 52.58; 16. Akwasi Frimpong, GHA, 53.21; 18. Hunter Williams, USA, 53.24; 23. Zack Goodwin, USA, 54.34.
Race 4 — 1. Nathan Crumpton, ASA, 50.75; 2. Zhu Haifeng, CHN, 51.04; 3. Zhang Jing, CHN, 51.23; also, 7. Chris Strup, USA, 52.09; 12. Akwasi Frimpong, GHA, 52.55; 13. Kyler Sultemeirer, USA, 52.68; 15. Zack Goodwin, USA, 53.25; 18. Hunter Williams, USA, 53.51.
Race 5 — 1. Nathan Crumpton, ASA, 1:39.49; 2. Yin Zheng, CHN, 1:39.77; 3. Zhu Haifeng, CHN, 1:39.82; also, 10. Chris Strup, USA, 1:42.35; 12. Akwasi Frimpong, GHA, 1:42.76; 15. Zack Goodwin, USA, 1:43.15; 16. Kyler Sultemeirer, USA, 1:43.18; 20. Hunter Williams, USA, 1:44.61
Race 3 — 1. Zhu Yangqi, CHN, 52.84 seconds; 2. Kim Eunji, KOR, 53.41; 3. Michelle Toukan, USA, 53.46; also, 7. Lauren McDonald, USA, 53.93; 15. Emily Schelberg, USA, 55.06.
Race 4 — 1. Zhu Yangqi, CHN, 52.91; 2. Lee Jeonghyeok, KOR, 53.14; 3. Lauren McDonald, USA, 53.39; also, 10. Michelle Toukan, USA, 54.54; 12. Emily Schelberg, USA, 54.86.
Race 5 — 1. Zhu Yangqi, CHN, 1:42.53; 2. Katie Tannenbaum, ISV, 1:44.33; 3. Kim Eunji, KOR, 1:44.55; also, 4. Michelle Toukan, USA, 1:44.89; 7. Lauren McDonald, USA, 1:45.06; 13. Emily Schelberg, USA, 1:47.07.