SALT LAKE CITY — When Akwasi Frimpong got on the phone earlier this year and called the Ghana Olympic Committee, the conversation went something like this:
Akwasi: “I’d like to compete for Ghana in the skeleton, I’ve got my own sled and it will cost you nothing.”
Some men want to be the first person from their country to go into space, or step foot on Everest, or swim the English Channel.
Akwasi wants to be the first person from Ghana — and all of Africa for that matter — to make the Olympics in the sliding sport of skeleton.
If he pulls it off, his would be a story not unlike the Jamaican Bobsled Team that inspired the Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” or British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle, who inspired the film of the same name released in 2016.
Akwasi will have to meet much tougher qualification standards than those Olympians — due to requirements imposed to keep novelty acts out of future games — but he shrugs that off as inconsequential. He doesn’t want to just suit up for Ghana in the Olympics, he wants to win a medal.
It’s not as preposterous as it sounds. For three reasons: One, Akwasi left his native Ghana at the age of 8 to live in The Netherlands, where he was introduced to cold weather and competitive athletics and became an accomplished sprinter, winning a youth national championship at 200 meters when he was 17. Two, he was introduced to the world of winter sliding sports in 2013 when he spent the season as a backup brakeman/pusher on the Dutch national bobsled team. Three, he lives in Utah; his house in Salt Lake City is only a half-hour from Utah Olympic Park, home to one of four skeleton tracks in North America.
The story of how Akwasi came to Utah is equally as convoluted as how he came to be a skeleton racer. When he was 22 and freshly graduated from high school in The Netherlands, he found a list of schools with track programs in the United States and started firing off emails. He wrote to big schools like Michigan and UCLA and small schools like South Dakota State. He did not discriminate.
Based on his sprint times and the fact he’d finished top in his class academically, he received several offers for partial ride scholarships sight unseen. But only one school offered him a full ride: Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. He took it.
He flew into Salt Lake City on Aug. 15, 2008, all by himself, and moved into the dorms at UVU.
This wasn’t Holland, and it sure wasn’t Ghana. “Holy cow,” Akwasi says, recalling his reaction, “99 percent white people. And of course I was invited right away to come to church. I went, because you know what, they had food.”
His second month here he met Erica Shields from Hurricane, Utah, a fellow track athlete and his future wife, “who helped me understand everything.”
He ran track for UVU in 2010 and 2011, until injuries curtailed his college running career. He graduated with honors in 2013 in marketing.
He and Erica married in 2014, prompting Akwasi to put athletics on hold and put his marketing skills to the test. He started work for the Kirby Vacuum Company. If you can sell vacuums door to door, you can sell anything, they told him. In his first 15 days he sold 19 Kirbys. A month later he sold 32. He was the top Kirby salesman in America. Kirby gave him a distributorship. He had 20 people working under him.
But for all that, he couldn’t get two things out of his mind. One was a feeling of unfulfilled accomplishment as an athlete. He felt there was another mountain out there he needed to climb.
The other was Ghana.
He hadn’t lived there since he was 8, but it was still his native land, still the place he felt he owed a debt of homage.
In his fleeting time on the Dutch bobsled team, he remembered the coaches telling him he would make a good skeleton racer.
One thought led to another. He ran his idea by Erica. She gave him the green light on one condition: he had to enjoy it.
Thus emboldened, he entered a four-day driving school at Utah Olympic Park last winter to see how he and riding a sled 70 miles an hour would get along.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” he says, “Riding a skeleton is like being on a motorcycle going as fast as you want — through the canyons. And, unlike the bobsled, I could see where I was going.”
He’s selling Kirbys on the side now, and training on the other side. Four months ago, when the sliding season began on the track in Calgary in September, he made his first official runs as chronicled by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. He’s since made additional runs at every other track in North America — Whistler, Lake Placid and Utah Olympic Park. His best finish is fourth — from the last. The IBSF has him ranked 117th in the world, out of 132.
“Everything takes time,” smiles Akwasi, who will be competing this weekend at the UOP, Jan. 6-7, in the North American Cup, hoping to qualify for the world championships in February in Germany.
He should be easy to spot. Look for the sled with the flags of the United States and The Netherlands at the bottom — and the large one of Ghana on top.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]