Meet Zimbabwe’s first Winter Olympian
Zimbabwe has seen a sprinkling of snow only once, and it wasn’t even in Luke Steyn’s lifetime.
Doesn’t matter one bit.
The 20-year-old Steyn will still be the southern African country’s first Winter Olympics athlete when he races in the slalom and giant slalom at the 2014 Games in Sochi – the final stage of a journey from his sweltering, snowless country of birth to the University of Colorado and beyond.
"He might not get a gold, but there’s plenty of time," Kevin Atkinson, the head of the Zimbabwe Snow Sports Association, told The Associated Press. "It’s great experience and a fantastic achievement to represent our country at the Winter Games."
Alongside Steyn’s personal story, it’s also remarkable that Zimbabwe has a snow sports organization. Snow has fallen in the country once, records indicate, more than 50 years ago when a freak light dusting settled in a central region in 1960.
But since Jamaica’s bobsled team turned up at the 1988 Calgary Games with borrowed sleds and a dream, the Winter Olympics has become reachable for athletes from all sorts of countries – snow or not.
In Africa, Togo and Morocco also have athletes who have qualified for Sochi this year, while South Africa could have sent a slalom skier, too, but decided to turn his place down. The Cayman Islands, the Virgin Islands and tropical Tonga in the south Pacific will also send competitors to Sochi – itself one of the few places in Russia with a sub-tropical climate.
Of course, Steyn needed snow and therefore other countries to make his winter dream happen after first taking up skiing on family vacations in Europe. He perfected his art while studying in the United States, on trips to New Zealand and Chile, and then throughout Europe in a bid to qualify.
Backed by Zimbabwe’s recently formed snow sports group and the national sports council, he said he drove about 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) through France, Italy and Switzerland in 20 days to gather enough points in his events to make the grade for Sochi before the Jan. 19 cutoff for qualifying.
There were also weather problems in Europe, where poor snowfalls affected his schedule almost every day. Once again, Steyn was left chasing the snow.
"It has been a case of readjusting to the European winter where races have been tougher and there have been a large amount of athletes at the races that haven’t been canceled," Steyn said.
When it comes to the country of his birth, Steyn’s skiing has taken him further away from Zimbabwe, yet he said he’s dedicated to his home country and will return.
"Africa is in your blood," he said.
In a troubled nation that has an estimated 3 million people living abroad as economic or political fugitives, Steyn also has the backing of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee and the state-run Sports and Recreation Council to wear Zimbabwe’s colors on the Sochi snow.
"This is a first for us. We are fully behind the athlete who will lift the country’s flag there," ZOC chief executive Anna Mguni said.
Atkinson, who shares his role as head of the snow sports association with his day job as a high school headmaster, added that Zimbabwe’s competitive sporting spirit – displayed by golfers like Nick Price and two-time Olympic swimming champion Kirsty Coventry – was pivotal in helping create its first Winter Olympics qualifier.
The lack of snow didn’t matter.
"(Steyn) has had a lot of people wondering how we can produce a world-class skier," Atkinson said. "Zimbabwe tends to breed a competitive spirit. But it’s not just about winning at all costs. It’s a healthy enthusiasm for all sport."