SALT LAKE CITY— Ghanaian skeleton athlete, Akwasi Frimpong, became the first skeleton athlete from Ghana to compete in the Winter Olympics in 2018. Today he, along with several former U.S. skeleton coaches and athletes, is forming Ghana’s first Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. Just like the Jamaican bobsled team before him, Akwasi Frimpong is pushing the boundaries of the Olympic status quo.
Frimpong’s goal is the modern-day version of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team memorialized in “Cool Runnings,” a 1993 movie about the Jamaican team’s road to qualifying and competing in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Thirty years later, Akwasi Frimpong is walking down the same path.
A sprinter on the Dutch 4×100 team, Frimpong had aspirations of being an Olympian since he was 17-years-old. Unfortunately, he missed qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Later, the Netherlands bobsled team recruited him due to his sprinting ability. After making the bobsled team in 2012, he competed and narrowly missed qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, being named as the alternate brakeman. In November 2016, his coach convinced him to try skeleton.
Similar to bobsled, skeleton athletes slide on their stomach, headfirst on a large, lunch-tray style sled. Top athletes reach speeds of over 80 m.p.h., sliding through approximately 15 curves on a mile-long ice track.
After deciding to become a competitive skeleton slider, Frimpong then had to decide what nation to represent; The Netherlands, where he began his track and bobsled career, or his birth country, Ghana. “I was 30 and realized that I had not done anything for the country where I was born and this was a huge opportunity for me to go after my dreams of becoming an Olympian.” The only logical choice would be to compete for his birth country, Frimpong concluded. He also hoped that by doing so, he would inspire the youth of Ghana to venture beyond the comfortable and dare to dream.
Frimpong qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea; making him the first athlete from Ghana to represent skeleton in the Winter Olympics. There, he was aided by Lauri Bausch, a coach for the U.S. team who occasionally helped coach athletes from smaller nations on the side. Bausch has been a coach for the U.S. team since 2015, after a hamstring injury ended her own six-year skeleton career.
“Akwasi has a charm about him that is attention-getting which aided him in sharing his unique upbringing and efforts to represent his birth country and continent,” says Bausch. “He is positive and hardworking, and does much to stay connected especially to the youth of Ghana and is not just focused on himself.”
Frimpong ended up being an unexpected hit among the fans. He didn’t really expect to receive as much attention as he did. “I was honored to touch the hearts of millions of people all over the world to dare to dream and to go after their wildest dreams,” he says.
After returning to Utah, where he currently lives with his family, Frimpong set out to accomplish his next goal: start the Ghana Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and bring Ghanaian athletes to the Winter Olympics.
Frimpong has hosted multiple skeleton clinics in Ghana to introduce and inspire Ghanaian youth. He hopes they’ll be inspired to try the sport. Meanwhile, he held a combine event in Salt Lake City to recruit potential skeleton athletes with Ghanaian roots.
Recently, the developing Federation appointed former U.S. skeleton coach, Zach Lund, as the head performance director. Lund competed for 11 years on the U.S. skeleton team before switching over to coaching for the last eight.
Lund decided to join Ghana after philosophical differences with the U.S. program and is excited for the burgeoning Ghanaian Federation. “Akwasi came to me with his vision for the Ghana program. His vision was inspiring and felt like something that was bigger than just skeleton,” Lund says.
Lund hopes to turn Ghana into a sliding sports “powerhouse,” which is not out of the realm of possibility. Not only was Lund an Olympian, he also coached U.S. athletes to three Olympic medals. Moreover, he intends to do more than just go fast.
Lund and Frimpong both want to make history, and that’s what he likes most about Akwasi. “Instead of trying to inspire a continent, we are trying to bring diversity into a sport and Olympic movement that lacks.” There are not nearly enough African nations involved in the Winter Olympics, he says.
That’s what special about the Olympics, bringing nations together, big and small, on one stage to compete. “It’s not about the nation winning medals,” Lund said in an interview with GhanaWeb, a website all about Ghana. “It’s about being with people who are there for the right reasons. The Olympics are about bringing people together.”
The number of countries that have competed in the Winter Olympics have steadily been on the rise. According to olympic.org., the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, had 35 competing countries, growing to 92 now in the most recent 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. These figures however, don’t compete with the Summer Olympics. During the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, 121 countries competed, which increased to 207 during the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Lund hopes the creation of the Ghanaian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation will be the beginning of other African countries competing. “It’s about the small nations being on the same playing field with the larger nations, competing against them,” says Lund. “That’s what I love about the Olympics.”