Meet the Athletes Latinos Are Rooting For in the 2018 Winter Olympics

The Winter Olympic Games is not frequently a showcase of Latin-American talent, but for 2018, Mexico and Puerto Rico are represented in South Korea — and there are some inspiring characters and stories to follow. Here’s a roundup.

Puerto Rico has entered its own athlete to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1998: 17-year-old Charles Flaherty. Flaherty’s father moved the family to the island from Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2010 (an athlete is required to have lived in Puerto Rico at least three years to represent it in competition). Inspired by watching the Sochi Games in 2014, Flaherty is one of the youngest Olympians in Pyeongchang and will race the men’s giant slalom.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) still recognizes Puerto Rico as a country and allows it to field its own competitors. In 2002 after deeming one of its bobsled team members ineligible, the Puerto Rican Olympic Committee withdrew its recognition of the Winter Sports Federation and no athletes were allowed to represent the commonwealth for the next three Winter Games. Other territories, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam have been recognized as “independent states” by the IOC.

Mexico has four representatives at the Games, the most since the 1992 Games in France, in three different types of skiing. Each athlete symbolizes multiculturalism.

Rodolfo Dickson qualified for Alpine skiing’s men’s slalom and men’s giant slalom. Born to two Mexico-born parents, he was orphaned at 9 months and adopted by a Canadian couple living near his orphanage in Puerto Vallarta at 3. He was also diagnosed with learning disabilities, possibly stemming from foster care. During a vacation in Quebec at 6 years old, he donned skis and the rest is Olympics history. The 20-year-old also graduated high school as an “Ontario scholar” in 2015.

Sara Schleper (aka Sarah Schleper de Gaxiola), born and raised in the Colorado Rockies, is also competing in slalom and giant slalom. She was a four-time U.S. Olympic skier before retiring in 2011. In June 2014, two months after gaining Mexican citizenship, she came out of retirement at 35 to ski for Mexico. Her Mexican husband Federico Gaxiola and three children will be rooting for Schleper, 38, who supports young Mexican skiers.

Sarah Schleper at the Opening Ceremonies Feb. 9

German Madraza, 43, will represent Mexico in cross-country skiing, and was flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies. The longtime triathlete, from Queretaro, Mexico, picked up the winter sport less than two years ago because he heard it was tougher than his Iron Man competitions. He has lived in McAllen, Texas, for about a decade.

Though Robert Franco was born in California, he has dual Mexican-American citizenship due to his Guadalajaran father. Franco, who will compete in men’s slopestyle, lives in Mexico and has been known to train on gravel due to the lack of ski facilities in the country. It must be working: He qualified for the Olympics with a fifth place in the World Cup in Italy.

Team Mexico fans have something else to get excited about: fun Dia de Los Muertos–inspired uniforms.

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Alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics consists of four main groups: downhill, super giant slalom, slalom, giant slalom. Super-giant slalom and downhill races have fewer turns and are thus faster. Slalom races have courses with short tight turns, whereas giant slalom races have courses set with wider turns.

 

Climate change closes iconic summer ski slope where winter Olympic athletes trained

By Jeremy Deaton

Imagine that Steph Curry, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant went to the same summer camp growing up. Every June, they showed up to the same gym, trained on the same court and drank from the same cooler of Gatorade. ESPN would make documentaries about that camp. Curry would wax poetic about his bygone summers in postgame press conferences, and every kid in America would know its name.

Now imagine that, one day, it vanished into thin air.

This is the story of Camp of Champions, once Canada’s premier summer training ground for elite skiers and snowboarders. There, beginners could rub elbows with Olympic greats like snowboarder Shaun White, two-time gold medalist in the halfpipe, or Joss Christensen, who won gold in slopestyle skiing’s Olympic debut.

A slopestyle skier at Camp of Champions, 2014. Credit: Camp of Champions

It was at Camp of Champions where former U.S. snowboarding coach Bill Enos first took notice of slopestyle legend Sage Kotsenburg. “One of the days when the jumps were firing and it was sunny, he just went to work,” he said. “You could tell he had a really good chance of doing well at the Olympics. I actually called my boss and said, ‘We got one here.’” Kotsenburg would take gold in Sochi.

For Ken Achenbach, founder and owner of Camp of Champions, it was almost too good to be true. “Every person on the Canadian slopestyle and big air team for snowboarding used to be campers,” he said. “In Sochi, we swept the slopestyle podium in skiing as well as snowboarding for men.”

The long parade of Olympians would come to an abrupt halt in June, 2017. In a letter to would-be campers, Achenbach explained that dwindling snowpack meant he couldn’t build the ramps athletes needed to train. “I wanted to give you an exceptional experience, and now I can’t,” he wrote. “After 28 years, my dream is over. Honestly, I want to crawl under a rock. I feel like I have died.

“Simply put, it’s the effects of global warming.”

Ken Achenbach. Credit: Camp of Champions

Camp of Champions sat on a glacier on Blackcomb Mountain, a craggy alp around 100 miles north of Vancouver and one half of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. Snow would build up during the winter and spring, covering the glacier in a thick layer of powder. When summer arrived, it was the cool bed of ice that kept the snow from melting. But in recent years, the glacier on Blackcomb Mountain has retreated — losing 35 vertical feet of ice in 2015 alone, according to Achenbach. Snowfall also has declined.

“It didn’t snow for three years, and then, when it did snow, the glacier was in such a depleted condition that Whistler Blackcomb wanted us to build super tiny jumps,” Achenbach said. Resort managers tried using snowmaking guns to restore the glacier, but it was of little use. Without the glacier, snow withered in the June heat. “It almost doesn’t matter how much snow we get in the winter anymore because in the summer it’s just so hot for so long.”

Camp of Champions, 2011. Credit: Camp of Champions

Achenbach used to keep the camp open for six weeks, but as temperatures rose, six weeks become four. Then four became two. “In the summer, when it’s hot there, we would be losing a foot of snow a day — two feet a day sometimes,” he said. “30 degrees C used to be a hot day. This year, we had pretty much a month straight of 35- or 37-degree days.”

The problem isn’t unique to Whistler Blackcomb. Temperatures are creeping up around the globe. “We’ve had a couple of very bad seasons, years where we expect to have snow at certain elevations and we don’t get it,” said Adam Higgins, athlete development manager for Canada Snowboard. “If there’s no snow on the mountains, we’re out of a sport.”

The closure of Camp of Champions has deprived athletes of an invaluable training site. “Everybody that’s really shooting for the Olympics or becoming a great pro now is training in the summer,” Enos said. “When a facility like that puts up good jumps and creates a great park with fast lap times, that’s when your guys start to get better.” Now, skiers and snowboarders must find somewhere else to hone their skills.

A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

In some ways, Camp of Champions is interchangeable with other summer training sites, but ask the people who attended the camp, and they will tell you that it was something special. Achenbach was eager to nurture young talent, creating a space where novice skiers and snowboarders could learn alongside their heroes.
“We will definitely miss Camp of Champions. Absolutely,” Higgins said. “When you can have young kids from all over the world come to Whistler and be able to ride in the same park as the national team, I think it’s great.” Enos shared his sentiment.
“To see the pros interact with the campers was something Ken and that program did really well, year after year,” he said. “You really felt cared for there. It wasn’t just a business. It was a family.”

A skier at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

Achenbach reminisced about shy kids learning to ski and snowboard, making friends from around the world, and gaining a newfound sense of confidence. “Camp of Champions is where kids got their first taste of what they could do, what they could become,” he said. “It changed everybody’s life that came to it.”

Some of those young skiers and snowboarders would stick around after they grew up. “We trained people to be professional snowboarders and live their dreams, and then, once they became pros, we would hire them to be coaches,” Achenbach said. “We didn’t hire just anybody. We hired people that came from camp and achieved their dreams and went on to inspire the next generation to do the same thing.”

Among Achenbach’s first hires was Colin Whyte, a snowboard enthusiast who went on to serve as editor-in-chief of Future Snowboarding Magazine and later covered snowboarding for ESPN.

A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

“Ken Achenbach has always been snowboarding’s number one evangelist in Canada,” he said. “Camp of Champions was a real cultural behemoth, and I’m sad that skiing and snowboarding have lost this one-of-a-kind institution.” Whyte worked at the camp from 1989 until 2001.

“I met some incredible campers and coaches over my years there, many of whom I’m still friends with today,” he said. “If you could measure the cumulative fun that went down at Camp of Champions in all those decades of camp, I guarantee it would be off the charts.”

For Achenbach, a real estate agent and father of two, it was a dream come true. Asked about his favorite moment from his 29 years at Whistler Blackcomb, he replied without hesitation.

“Every second of every day.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.