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Iraqi Slides Toward Olympics

Faisal Takes Up Skeleton in Quest For Spot in Turin

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page D01

Faisal Faisal's Olympic dream appears to be just that -- a goal far out of reach, almost entirely unrealistic.

In 2006, he wants to become the first Iraqi athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics, but he can hardly describe the sport, skeleton, in which he hopes to qualify. It's fast and fun and it happens on ice, Faisal said. And in part thanks to the U.S. Olympic Committee, he's been hurtling down an icy track in Lake Placid, N.Y., for two weeks. He's successfully completed, he said proudly, 21 skeleton runs.

Iraq's Faisal Faisal, left, has support from U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation Sports Director Terry Kent and trains in Lake Placid. (Ned Rauch -- Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Press-Republican Via AP)

_____ 2004 Summer Olympics _____
Look back at the Athens Games, highlighted by Michael Phelps's eight medals and marked by unfounded worries over terrorism.

Faisal is, in short, remarkably un-Olympian.

But skeleton specialists who've watched him over the last two weeks have reached a surprising conclusion about the beginner. Faisal might well debut as Iraq's first winter Olympian at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, some said, because a determination this intense is difficult to doubt.

Since he vowed in 1998 to one day represent his country in the Olympics, Faisal has tried five sports. He's suffered two panic attacks and a sleep disorder during a quest that, so far, has been part tragedy, part comedy.

"It's been the struggle of my life," said Faisal, 24, whose effort has been almost entirely self-funded. "The way our country is, every achievement counts at home. I'm the first from Iraq to even try to qualify in a winter sport, so it wasn't going to be easy."

Seven years of trial and error landed him in Lake Placid late last month. In November, he sent a desperate letter to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which quickly invited him to Lake Placid to try the sport, in which an athlete slides face-first down an ice track on a small sled. A few inches and a helmet are all that separate an athlete's face from the ice as the sled races about 80 mph.

Faisal will spend at least the next six weeks training with top-level coaches and aspiring U.S. Olympic athletes in hopes of gaining some of the certification necessary to compete in the 2006 Games.

The USOC is heavily promoting Faisal's visit as a triumph of Olympic solidarity, one that could give Iraq a heartwarming story to parallel that of the country's soccer team in the 2004 Games in Athens.

But for Faisal, this is just the latest step in a difficult pursuit.

"In my opinion, it's realistic to qualify for Turin, and that's why I keep trying," Faisal said yesterday. "Making it means everything. That's all that matters to me."

Not even the sport is important. Faisal left Iraq at 17 to study in Australia, where he quickly picked up skiing. During weekends off from school, he would travel seven hours by bus to a ski resort. With little concept of snow and no instruction, Faisal suffered a panic attack and eventually gave up the sport.

He tried snowboarding, which sometimes scared him so thoroughly he struggled to sleep. He tried to become a speedskater, then learned that he would not be eligible for the Olympics because Iraq did not have a single ice rink.

In September 2004, he considered ski jumping until a prospective coach looked at him and, perhaps picturing a man from the desert flying through the air and landing in snow, literally laughed in his face.

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