February 9, 2018 at 11:01 AM
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The 10 siblings and half-siblings and cousins, all adolescents and kids and tots, slept strewn in a tangle of blankets around the concrete floor in the 15-by-15 one-room house in Kumasi, Ghana. No particular furniture turns up in the memory bank of 31-year-old Utah resident Akwasi Frimpong, but he did spot a chair and maybe a table in old photographs .
“The only time we had a full egg or a full Coca-Cola bottle was when it was Christmas,” Frimpong said Wednesday here, 8,018 miles from there.
Yet they “had each other,” particularly Frimpong’s yeoman grandmother. So when it came time for some of them to leave for the Netherlands in 1994, a then-8-year-old Frimpong threw a mighty and mournful fit. At that moment, neither he nor anyone around him would have known anything about skeleton, a funky sport to that point the Olympics had staged just twice.
Olympics often illuminate and, in that vein, these 2018 Winter Games specialize in the incomprehensible topic of human migration, well beyond even Frimpong, the Utah resident via the Netherlands representing Ghana. There’s a Canadian Alpine skier representing Eritrea (which his parents left in the war-plagued 1980s), a French Alpine skier representing Madagascar (her birthplace before adoption by French parents), a Canadian speedskater representing Singapore (her birthplace before her family moved to Edmonton when she was 4), an Austrian Alpine skier representing Kenya (her birthplace before her mother married an Austrian when she was 2).
There’s a Quebecois Alpine skier representing Morocco (and honoring his Moroccan father), a South African skier who schools in Vermont (and graced a ski academy in Maine), an Ecuadoran cross-country skier who resides in Australia (where he trains on roller skis), and an Italian Alpine skier who represents Togo (because, according to her Olympic bio, her father owns a company there and maintains great fondness for the Togolese).
Twelve athletes (the most since 1992) represent eight countries (the most ever) from the not generally snowy, not generally icy African continent. Somehow, they include that kid whose mother dragged him wailing through the Kumasi airport and who said 23 years on: “I have a picture in my head. I’m not kidding you. There was a moment I remember when they had to throw water on me to calm me down.”
Window or middle or aisle, he can’t remember, but he can recall how his mother had promised to return, how his grandmother was “my everything” and how the plane lifted into the air and his stomach lifted toward his throat. They were off to Europe, and eventually they landed somewhere, maybe Germany, and they took a bus to somewhere else, in the Netherlands, and there he was, age 8.
His plight for legal residency in the Netherlands required a duration that qualifies as staggering: 13 years.
It wreaked a pile of documents that eventually weighed “20 kilos” (44 pounds), he said. It robbed a big chunk of his childhood and teen years and fill the void with dread, consuming uncertainty and letters that went, as he puts it, “Denied, denied, denied, denied, denied,” and, “‘Get out of the country.’ ” It meant he started school and had to stop, early on. It prevented him from any more flights, including for a school retreat to Barcelona and, once he was a sprinter, a track and field competition in Malaga, Spain.
“I had to wave them goodbye,” he said of his teammates.
When he broke his leg in 2004, at 18, he said, “No doctor would help me because I did not have the papers.” Simple walks always came tinged with fear because, he said, “When you’re walking around and you see a cop car, you feel like it’s meant for you.” Fellow kids chronically belittled the undocumented, unaware of their friend’s situation. “It’s like living in an isolated area, in an isolated jail or something like that,” he said, and he found that true “especially when you know you have talent and you want to do something good and you want to be an asset and you want to pay taxes.”
Yet he was a diligent athlete, and his body evolved into something that belongs in a sculpture park, and help came from, of all people, an extremely famous person. He got his high school education at the Johan Cruyff Institute, hatched by the late soccer magician (1947-2016), the three-time winner of the Ballon d’Or award as the world’s best player.
“Just the fact that somebody that important, somebody that legendary, stood for me and was rooting for me,” he said, “that’s just amazing. I get goose bumps when I talk about that.”
The leaders there helped him with all manner of paperwork, from his bid for residency to his bids for an athletic scholarship in the United States.
At last, in 2007, at age 21, there did come a day. “I know exactly where I was,” he said. “I was at a fair” — an event for a politician aspiring to be a mayor. A phone call came from a mayor’s assistant. It went something like: “Hey, everything is in order. You’ll be receiving positive news in a couple of weeks.” It felt hard to believe.
No, literally, it felt hard to believe.
“Nothing is real until you have it in hand,” he said.
By the summer of 2008, at age 22, Frimpong had a Dutch passport and a scheduled arrival at the Salt Lake City airport, alone for the third flight of his life, the second a vacation to Spain. Two Ghanaian athletes met him. Utah Valley, a 33,000-strong school in Orem, Utah, had offered him the best scholarship.
He got a giggle out of the Utah residents being “99 percent white,” and he said of the weather, “It was very, very, very hot.” He began training, under a head coach for whom he is grateful, Scott Houle. The altitude was something and also something else.
“We started training in two or three days,” he said, “and I remember going to the restroom not to do anything else but to puke.”
He thrived. He tried to make the 2012 Summer Olympics for the Netherlands in the 200 meters and came up just shy. Encouraged by a Dutch coach, Nicola Minichiello, he tried to make the 2014 Winter Olympics in the bobsled and came up just shy. He married a fellow track athlete from UVU and then Brigham Young, Erica Shields. They moved to Arizona, where Akwasi excelled at selling vacuum cleaners, often door to door. By 2017, they had a daughter.
In November 2015, Minichiello had recommended another pursuit, skeleton, the sport of the facedown sledding founded in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the late 1800s, conducted at the St. Moritz Olympics of 1928 and 1948 and injected into the Olympics for real at Salt Lake City 2002. Concurrently, the Frimpongs had agreed on something Akwasi says often in interviews: “I didn’t want to be 99 years old and still whining about my Olympic dreams.”
He drove maybe 13 hours to Park City, Utah, for his inaugural skeleton run. It was only about half as long as a real one, but half was enough.
“It was super, super scary,” he said. “My brain couldn’t catch up to whatever I was doing. I didn’t know where I was on the track. I thought I was going to die.”
By now, the first West African in Olympic skeleton keeps a steadfast, distant aim of a medal in 2022. He hopes to implant in Ghanaian youth the idea that they might “come out of their comfort zone and challenge the unknown.” His and Erica’s daughter, 9-month-old Ashanti, carries the same name as the region of Kumasi, where an 8-year-old boy once melted down at the airport.
“I’m a voice now,” Frimpong said, “for all the undocumented and illegal immigrants all over the world that are working hard.”
Last July, he returned to sunny Ghana for the first time in 23 years, and his grandmother, Minka, began “singing and dancing” and “calling my name.”
This past Sunday, this man of three continents arrived here in a fourth, placed a Ghanaian flag on his wall and posted a photo of his room to Twitter. This past Wednesday, still just 31, he felt “honored” to train on the tough Olympic skeleton track.
“I stayed on my sled,” he said.
Read more coverage: