Saudi Arabia is no one’s winter wonderland. With its sandy deserts and 70-degree average winter temperature, a snowflake would evaporate into the air long before it had a chance to coat the ground.
Whenever his Utah friends pointed this out, however, Fayik Abdi took it as a personal affront.
“My friends always tell me, like, there’s no correlation between Saudi and skiing. And to be frank, that pissed me off,” Abdi told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So I went back to Saudi to see what I can do with skiing in Saudi.”
What Abdi could do was on display last week during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. Midway through the parade of nations, he strode in his sand-colored thobe into the Bird’s Nest stadium while holding high the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s simple green flag.
It was the country’s first Winter Games, and Abdi its first Winter Olympian.
Abdi made that official Sunday morning when he set his skis in the starting gate at the Yangqing National Alpine Skiing Centre, one of 89 competitors in the opening run of the men’s giant slalom. He was to take two runs on the course Sunday, after which medals were to be awarded.
So how did a former Salt Lake City ski bum, who took online classes at the U just so he could get more days on the mountain, come to make Olympic history? Moreover, how did he do it less than a year after he started racing? Put simply, it was the byproduct of a passion project melding Saudi Arabia and skiing.
“I love skiing. I’m super passionate about it,” Abdi said. “So any challenge involving skiing I’m basically up for, and especially at that stage when I was really trying to create something and do something with skiing.”
From a practical standpoint, Abdi should never have found himself on skis. Born in San Diego, he moved to Saudi Arabia as a child and then to Florida as a teen before finally making his way to Utah, the only place he’s ever lived where the snow isn’t all manmade. But his mother skied and would take Abdi and his two brothers on ski trips to Lebanon and Switzerland.
“I always wanted to try to pursue it,” the 24-year-old said. “But it was really difficult getting to a place with snow living in Saudi.”
Florida wasn’t any better. Abdi moved to a boarding school there at age 14 to pursue a career in soccer, the sport both of his brothers play professionally. Injuries kept setting him back, however, so upon graduation he gave up on that dream and started pursuing another one. He headed to Utah to become a ski bum.
In addition to taking classes in criminal justice, Abdi worked part time as a ski technician at Alta and Snowbird. He took online classes in the spring to free up his schedule and said he logged more than 120 ski days a season between 2016 and his graduation in 2020.
“I remember my senior year, I had to walk around campus not knowing where anything was,” he said.
He was never on the Utes ski team — which has a program-record 12 current and former athletes competing at these games. But he did participate in the school’s free ride club.
Abdi left the mountains to return to Saudi Arabia after graduation, but the mountains never left him.
He started researching ways to ski in the country and came across the name of Heinrik May, a pioneer in sand skiing. May told him about an opportunity to be a snow tester and a commercial skier for Neom, a resort in Saudi Arabia that aspires to have the second-largest indoor ski area in the world. (The largest is the Harbin Wanda indoor ski in China, which has 34 indoor snow centers).
At the same time, the Saudi Winter Sports Federation, as part of the country’s Vision 2030 initiative to encourage its people to be more physically active, was undertaking a global campaign to create its first winter team. It reached out to Abdi a week after he finished the video shoot and asked if he would be interested in trying to qualify for the Olympics. That was March 2021. Beijing 2022 was less than 11 months away.
“We had five months to qualify, you know, with new boots, new skis, new technique, new everything, basically, to try to learn a brand new sport,” Abdi said. “I mean, when we first started, we thought it was impossible. And we were told, ‘Probably won’t happen.’ But yeah, we somehow made it happen.”
Competing on the FIS national championship circuit, a step below the World Cup, Abdi and another ski racer, Salman Al-Howaish, entered the 2021-22 season in October with the goal to race well enough to earn a start at the Olympics. Both met the threshold but Abdi, who was ranked higher, was awarded a place in the history books.
“Champions among us,” Arab News reporter Chen Weiqing, China’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an IOC representative, tweeted out after Abdi was named the country’s representative.
The transition from ski bum to Olympic ski racer all happened so fast, even medal favorite Ryan Cochran-Siegle, also of Utah, would have a hard time keeping pace.
“Even right now, it’s kind of like, I mean, I know, yeah we are at the Olympics,” said Abdi, who plans to return to the Games in 2026. “But it’s kind of hard to believe that we are at the Olympics.”