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Three years ago, Altair Firmino had never seen a pair of skis, let alone snow. But now, the 16-year-old from Sao Paulo, Brazil, is competing in cross-country skiing alongside other young athletes from all over the world at the 2nd Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.
Firmino’s journey to the YOG began in 2013, when he joined a project in Sao Paulo called Ski na Rua (Ski the Streets), which was established by two-time Olympian Leandro Ribela – a competitor in cross-country skiing at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Ribela had started the programme in July 2012 as a way to help disadvantaged children from the city’s San Remo favela, which sits behind the University of Sao Paulo.
“I used to go roller skiing in this area and I would always see children working there - asking to look after your car, asking for money or selling water,” he explains. “It always bothered me because they didn’t have the opportunity to take part in sports like other children their age.”
Ribela decided to introduce the kids to roller skiing using some of his own equipment, and Ski the Streets was born.
“Now we have 52 kids in the project,” he says. “The youngest is seven, the oldest is 21. The main idea is not just to provide them with sport but also to help them with things like health and education - it’s very common for kids in that area to drop out of school because they need to work. So we do cultural and educational activities with them as well, such as language lessons and museum trips.”
Firmino joined the project in 2013 after watching some of his friends taking part. He had only ever seen skiing on videos, but immediately took a liking to the sport.
“He always showed very good potential and a lot of interest and commitment,” says Ribela.
As Firmino’s skills developed, Ribela encouraged him to pursue cross-country skiing more seriously and take part in competitions. He saw snow for the first time in 2014, when he finished third in the under-16 age group at the Patagonic Championships in Bariloche, Argentina, but never imagined that the sport would one day take him to Lillehammer for the Youth Olympic Games.
“I was just doing it for fun in my spare time,” says Firmino. “But then I began to understand how important it could be in my life and the chances it could create for me, so I began to take it more seriously.”
In preparation for the YOG, he has been training in Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, with his friends in Sao Paulo scarcely able to believe what he is doing.
“Some of them think I’m crazy,” he jokes. “But most of my friends think it’s cool and they encourage me to keep doing it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
And it’s clear that Firmino is enjoying that experience, with a wide smile appearing on his face as he recalls his first taste of the YOG, when he finished 44th out of 50 in the new cross-country cross event.
“It is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “It has given me confidence to make more progress in my future races.”
The 16-year-old is already eyeing a place at the Olympic Winter Games in 2018 or 2022 and hopes that others from the Ski the Streets project can follow in his footsteps.
“I have enjoyed the experience so much and I would love to compete in the main Olympic Winter Games one day,” he says. “I wish that all the boys in the project can have the same experiences that I have had here.”
Thanks to the opportunities created by Ski the Streets, there’s every chance they may, although Ribela won’t be putting any pressure on them.
“Developing skiers was never our main goal,” he says. “Trying to make a difference in the society was always the real purpose, but I strongly believe that roller-skiing is a great way to prepare for cross-country skiing; you can transfer the skills very easily. Now I think there are a lot of younger kids coming through with potential and I don’t want to put any limits on how far they can go.”