Close to nothing went right for Akwasi Frimpong when he became the first African athlete to win an elite-level sliding competition. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it wouldn’t have meant as much to the Salt Lake City skeleton racer if everything had set up perfectly
On Feb. 29, back before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus, Frimpong arrived at the track at the Utah Olympic Park near Park City with a broken sled, a battered body and a dented ego. His helmet, too, was misshapen — the result of being left too long on a heater — but he didn’t notice that until he had entered the starting box and triggered a timer counting down the seconds to his first run.
Still, propelled by someone else’s faith in his dream, Frimpong, 34, flew faster than he ever had before. And just like that, the Utah Valley University graduate’s goal of making, and perhaps even medaling in, the 2022 Olympics in Beijing suddenly seemed real again.
“No African has ever won a skeleton event before in history,” said Frimpong, who represented his birth country of Ghana in the 2018 Olympics. “But the most important thing wasn’t being first and making history. The most important thing was that I am on track for 2022.”
In terms of prestige, the USA Western Regionals had very little. It basically served as a Team USA selection camp with the international competition as a sideshow. Winners weren’t even presented with medals.
That made the atmosphere around it relaxed, though. In turn, Frimpong felt at ease. So, despite his laundry list of issues, he set a personal record of 50.69 seconds on that opening run. Added to an only slightly slower second run, he achieved the fastest combined time in an event that also featured athletes from Japan, Israel and Luxembourg. Furthermore, It was just 0.05 seconds behind the fastest man in the separate Team USA race, Stephen Garbet, who at the time was ranked 31st in the world.
That was something worth celebrating.
“When I knew he took first, that feeling inside is pretty rewarding,” Frimpong’s coach, Zach Lund, said. “It’s like having a kid or something and seeing them do well. To see his joy is all I needed.”
Coach is an intermittent term for Lund. A Salt Lake City native who placed fifth in skeleton in the 2010 Olympics, he coached Team USA from 2012-18. He met Ghana’s only skeleton racer — and at the time one of only two in Africa — in 2017 while Lund was still coaching the Americans. He immediately was inspired by Frimpong’s pluck and his plight as an athlete from a small nation with few resources. So, he agreed to be Frimpong’s full-time coach for the 2018-19 season. Then funding ran out, and Lund had to get a “real” job with the medical product company Stryker.
Lund’s plan was to make a clean break from skeleton, a sport he had been tied to since he was a teenager. But he couldn’t turn his back on Frimpong.
“Honestly I would have completely walked away from the sport I’ve been in for 25 years if it hadn’t been for him,” Lund, 41, said. “He keeps that passion going for me. Seeing him succeed means a lot to me.”
As a gesture of goodwill, Lund reviewed videos of Frimpong’s races when he could. When he realized he could attend the regionals, his first live race of the season, he offered to coach Frimpong for a day.
Frimpong credits Lund’s track knowledge and strict stance on body position for his success. Lund knows better, though. He said his greatest contribution that day was faith.
Frimpong, a man with a big smile to match his big goals, had become downtrodden. His performances had improved slightly but, because of changes made by the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation in the way it ranks athletes and in its qualifications for the 2022 Olympics, he felt he was losing traction. He was starting to question if all the naysayers were right about his ability to become the first African athlete to medal in the Winter Olympics. He wondered if his and his family’s sacrifices were worth it. Maybe it was time to stop spending money on travel to races instead of taking his wife and daughter on vacation. Maybe he should remodel his bathroom instead of rebuilding his sled.
“It sounds dumb, but in a dream or something I realized he needed that person to believe in him. He didn’t need that technical stuff,” Lund said. “Having someone believe in you can make all the difference in the world. My goal was to make him believe in himself again. I wasn’t going into details and data and stuff like that. My goal was making him mentally stronger.
“He told me, ‘When you started believing in me, I started believing I could actually do it and maybe I am capable of doing what I wanted to do.’”
With faith came consistency. With consistency came his win in Park City. With that win came a clearer path to Beijing in 2022.
Frimpong finished No. 75 in the 2019-20 IBSF rankings. By late 2021, he must move into the top 60. He successfully did that in 2018 to qualify for Pyeongchang, but a few things are different this time around. For one thing, the IBSF has cut the Olympic field to 25, down from 30, which mostly cuts into the opportunities for smaller nations. For another, Africa isn’t guaranteed a representative.
Those are just the obstacles to getting to the Games. Winning a medal requires breaking through a whole other set of markers. He’ll likely need a new sled, a new helmet and a healed body to bring that to fruition.
Frimpong won’t have to spend the offseason repairing the cracks in his self-esteem, though. Thanks to the successful end to his season, and Lund’s faith, they’ve already disappeared.
“Next season, I think I will shock myself and shock the world if I can stay focused and have the resources I need,” he said. “I’m not there yet, but the confidence I built last season I think is going to multiply next season.”