PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Philip Boit, previously Kenya’s only Winter Olympic athlete, hopes the African nation may yet have a future at the Games after countrywoman Sabrina Simader’s debut in Alpine skiing in Pyeongchang.
Boit, 46, is serving as the chef de mission for a team that previously only consisted of himself after he transitioned from middle distance running to cross-country skiing thanks to a Nike-sponsored program in the mid-1990s.
He competed at the 1998 Games in Nagano amid a media frenzy and returned for two more Games before retiring in 2011 with concerns that Kenya may never field another Winter Olympic athlete.
But that changed when the 19-year-old Simader fulfilled a lifelong dream and qualified for Pyeongchang.
”I am the happiest guy in this whole Olympics,“ Boit told reporters on Saturday. ”I thought Kenya at the Winter Olympics might die out after me.
“When I see Sabrina skiing it makes me very happy. Now I say to her, lift the sport of skiing in Kenya higher than where I lifted it.”
Boit, whose best Olympic performance came in Turin in 2006 when he finished ahead of eight other athletes to be placed 92nd in the 15 kilometre Classic, said while he and Simader were both born in Kenya, their background are not all that similar.
Simader left Kenya at the age of three to be raised in Austria and won races at a young age while Boit first saw snow in 1996, only two years before his Olympic debut.
“It was tougher for me. I was going from African temperatures to freezing winter temperatures,” he said.
”I used to wonder why on earth I was doing it. I only started learning the technique when I was 20. I’d never skied before and I‘m up against skiers who have been doing it since age two.
“Some people thought I was a joke, it was not nice. But I was very fit and I got better and better.”
But being the only Kenyan athlete in Pyeongchang has not been smooth sailing for Simader, who is nicknamed ‘Snow Leopard’.
She had to turn to crowd souring to raise money to buy equipment and to support her training and trip to Pyeongchang and said Kenya’s Winter Olympic organisation has plenty of room for improvement.
“Raising money to get here was intense. There were a lot of ups and downs. My coach worked day and night to help me qualify,” she told reporters on Saturday.
But marching in the parade of nations during Friday’s Opening Ceremony made all the hardship worthwhile for Simader, as would reaching her goal of finishing in the top 20 in the speed and technical events in which she plans to compete.
“At the Opening Ceremony it was very cool carrying the flag as the only athlete,” she said.
“I was really proud. It’s cool seeing a big team like Canada in front of you. That was funny. It was emotional for me too because the world is watching. It’s a dream come true.”
Reporting by Rory Carroll; editing by Sudipto Ganguly