Iraqi athlete on a headfirst try to reach Olympics

BY foxsports • November 10, 2009

For Faisal Faisal, the 2006 Turin Olympics were both unforgettable and unbearable. Pinned inside his family's Baghdad home while the opening ceremony from Turin was happening, Faisal couldn't venture outside, couldn't see friends, had no idea when the next explosion was coming. He watched the Olympics with a war outside his window. Adding to his anguish was this: He was almost part of the show, narrowly missing qualifying for the Olympic skeleton competition. "It crushed my life," Faisal said. Fast forward nearly four years. Things in Baghdad remain difficult, though improving on many fronts. He still isn't over the disappointment of falling short in 2006. But his personal "mission," he calls it, remains: Faisal Faisal, a 29-year-old Iraqi, is trying yet again to carry his country's flag into the Winter Olympics, his eyes set squarely on reaching the Vancouver Games this February. His odds are not good. Of course, making it this far wasn't guaranteed, either. "When I look back at it, it's so painful, and a part of me does fear missing the Olympics again," Faisal said, his English perfect from years of study abroad. "But that's the risk you take as an athlete. Either your dream comes true or it all gets destroyed and shattered. So I'm going for it again, because of what it will mean." This all started for Faisal in 1998, when he watched the Nagano Games on television and immediately got the idea to become a Winter Olympian. His family was deeply entrenched in Iraqi athletics, with his father a champion sprinter and an uncle who was an Asian Games champion hurdler. So, Faisal's around-the-world odyssey started. He obtained a student visa to study in Australia, began experimenting with other winter sports - alpine skiing, snowboarding, even speed skating - before settling on skeleton. Around 2005, he called the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation seeking help. Within two weeks, he was on the ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. "I've always been taught that the Olympics are about bringing the world together," 2002 Olympic skeleton gold medalist Jim Shea Jr., a Lake Placid native and third-generation Winter Olympian, said at the time. "I think this story is amazing." So Shea helped Faisal out, as did Tristan Gale, the 2002 women's gold medalist from the United States, and other members of the American team. It almost was enough; Faisal barely missed earning an Olympic invite. It won't be so easy this time. Qualifying for the Olympics is a much-tougher proposition now. "If he can make it, great," said U.S. assistant skeleton coach Greg Sand. "Faisal, to me, might be the equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team. If he makes it to the games, he'll get some good, strong crowd support, and he'll be a solid story. But he has to get there first. If he has a solid season, he can get it done. And I think he does help the sport." Faisal was 73rd in the FIBT rankings last season. He did not qualify for the World Cup circuit, which opens Thursday in Park City, so he'll race the Intercontinental Cup and America's Cup schedules. When it's time for Olympic invites to go out, 10 nations will have two or three athletes qualified for Vancouver, and he'll be chasing one of the remaining seven individual spots. "Every season, you get guys getting knocked out of the World Cup," Faisal said. "It's just got to happen again this season." Everything for Faisal is a challenge. He's already been handed one setback this season: There was an issue with his international racing license for the season, which led to him being barred from the Olympic track in Whistler, British Columbia during the recent two-week training period there. (Both sides say it was a bit of a misunderstanding.) His funding is running short, too: He gets $2,500 a month from the International Olympic Committee, which doesn't go far enough. He might even have to sell his pride and joy, a 1989 Ferrari sitting in an Australian storage unit. All that is nothing, though, when considering the plight of his homeland, where he hasn't been in more than three years. "My mom once told me that she wasn't afraid of death, but was afraid of the torture and kidnapping and things like that," Faisal said. "Isn't it kind of bizarre that that's the thing you worry about for the day over there? Imagine that's what's bothering you for a day. Some really crazy stuff has been going on there. It's beyond comprehension. So we hope and hold that positive hope." His hope is this: Carry the Iraqi flag this February. Have some Iraqi kids see what he's done, and let that serve as their motivation to take on something that might seem impossible. Sliding headfirst down an icy track at 80 mph is one small way to make it happen. "My family knows, this is for my country," Faisal said. "They're very proud of that."