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Sunday, February 28, 2010

'Snow Leopard' makes history for Ghana

It wasn't exactly pretty. But Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, the self-taught skier from Ghana known as the "Snow Leopard," has achieved his goal of racing in the Winter Olympics.

Last to start in a field of 102, Nkrumah-Acheampong skied the first run of the men's slalom Saturday in time of 1:09.08 -- more than 21 seconds behind the leader but still ahead of one skier who finished, Albania's Erjon Tola.

As the West African nation's first Winter Olympian came into view at the bottom of the hill, spectators chanted "Snow Leopard! Snow Leopard!" Later, he waded through fans, signing autographs on ski helmets and posing for pictures in his leopard-patterned ski suit.

Fans were still yelling "Ghana! Ghana! Ghana!" more than an hour after he raced.

Nkrumah-Acheampong wasn't really here to win. But don't tell him it's enough just to be at the Olympics.

"It's not just about coming down, but trying to come down and beat some people," he said.

Technically, the Snow Leopard was about halfway down Saturday's rankings: A total of 43 skiers, including American Bode Miller, did not finish in the wet and foggy conditions.

Nkrumah-Acheampong has made friends on the elite ski circuit, including 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, who went to Ghana with the Snow Leopard in 2006 to promote skiing.

"We did some grass skiing," Ligety said. "We took the grass skis out on a golf course, down a fairway and skied around. It was pretty fun."

Ligety said Nkrumah-Acheampong has improved greatly since his failed bid to compete in the Turin Games four years ago. "It's been cool to see him get better," he said.

Some fans traveled here just to see him compete. "It's just brilliant for him. I'm ever so happy," said Chris Morgan, an 18-year-old medical student from Manchester, England.

For Nkrumah-Acheampong, it's been an amazing journey. He learned to ski on artificial snow at an indoor dome in Britain, then earned race points in obscure events in places such as Iran, Argentina and Bosnia.


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