Akwasi Frimpong has long dreamt of competing at the Olympic Games. It was a dream that, growing up in poverty in Ghana seemed remote. But now, aged 31, he is on the verge of qualifying for PyeongChang 2018 in the skeleton. His remarkable story is one of triumph in the face of adversity, and of the power of sport and the human spirit.
It is a story that begins when eight-year-old Frimpong received some valuable words of wisdom from his grandma Minka – words that have stuck with him ever since.
"My grandma sat me down and said: 'Akwasi, what you need for success is already in you, you just need to believe in yourself, work hard and never give up.'"
However, as a child growing up in Ghana, the prospect of involvement in any form of competitive sport was virtually non-existent for Akwasi and his brother. Cared for by their grandma, in a one-room home barely four square metres in size, which they shared with eight other kids, they were just too poor. Their mum had left the country to move to Holland in a bid to create a better life for her children. Eventually Akwasi followed her to Europe, but his status there was that of an illegal immigrant.
As a teenager, he discovered he had a natural gift for athletics. "At my junior high school, I was recruited in track and field in 2001 by Sammy Monsels, who had competed as a sprint athlete at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics for Surinam," he explains. "He saw me running in a relay when I was 16. My team was way behind, but I caught up and won the race for us.
"It was Sammy who really instilled the dream of the Olympics in me. Within two months, I went to the Dutch Junior Indoor Championships and missed out on the 60m final by 0.01 seconds. That summer, I missed out on the 100m final, again by 0.01 seconds... I asked my coach what I needed to do to become a gold medallist. He spoke to me about self-discipline and it all started from there.
That year, Frimpong became the new Dutch junior 200m champion. "I had made my dream become a reality," he recalls. "I realised anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself."
However, because Frimpong's family did not have official status in Holland, his progress hit a hurdle. "As a kid, it was hard not being able to go on school trips if they were leaving the country because I was afraid I would be arrested." It also meant he could not travel abroad to compete.
"Even though I'm now 31, I still want to cry about that. It felt like I like I had so much weight upon my shoulders," he recalls. "Often I wanted to give up but, any time I felt like that, I thought about what my grandma had said to me."
"I always wanted to be an Olympian. To me the Olympics mean: dare to dream. The Olympics symbolise hope."Akwasi Frimpong
A visit from Cruyff
In 2003, he got a lucky break, thanks to the intervention of a neighbour, who also happened to be a journalist. "She told me about the Johan Cruyff school where you can combine sport and education. But then I had to tell her my secret: that I was an illegal immigrant. Until then, nobody else knew about it.
"She wrote about my story and the Johan Cruyff school took a risk and accepted me despite the fact I was still an illegal resident." Four years later his dedication paid off and he was named international student of the year. "That showed that if you work hard, you can achieve big things," he reflects.
"I was supposed to go to Barcelona to receive the award but, because of my status, I couldn't go. So Johan Cryuff came to Amsterdam to give me the award. He believed in me and the fact that someone like that – a legend – believed in me was amazing."
Daring to dream
"I always wanted to be an Olympian," continues Frimpong. "To me the Olympics mean: dare to dream. The Olympics symbolise hope."
After finally being granted official residency in the Netherlands, he looked on course to qualify for the Dutch athletics team for London 2012, but then misfortune struck in the form of an Achilles injury. It was not the sort of setback that was going to deter him from the pursuit of his dream, though.
"After missing out on London 2012, I was approached by the Dutch bobsleigh coach Nicola Minichiello about joining the team. I had my doubts, but then I remembered Cool Runnings and thought to myself: If Jamaicans can do it, so can I!
After six months wavering, he decided to go for it and made it onto the Dutch national bobsleigh team for the Winter Olympics Sochi 2014. But as second reserve he just missed the cut, at which point he decided to focus on other pursuits instead and ended up as a successful entrepreneur. But he could not let go of his Olympic hopes.
"My wife looked at me one day and said she knew something was bothering me… I still had that dream to get to the Olympics. I knew if I could fulfil my dream, I would be at peace. She said she didn't want me to be 99 years old and still whining about the Olympics!"
Dancing with ice
So, he decided to try his hand at a different winter sport. "I took part in a skeleton trial in Utah… and I loved it. The first time was really scary; it's so fast, your chin is about three inches from the ice and you have no brakes. But when I got to the finish, I just wanted to go back to the start and do it again. I just loved the feeling. It was like going through a canyon on a motorcycle with no speed limit; it was like dancing with the ice!
"I set myself the goal of becoming the first African to win a medal in Winter Olympic history. I knew it would take me four to six years to become really good, so initially my target was the 2022 Games. But when I started racing in 2016, I surprised myself. A lot of coaches said that I was sliding like someone who had been doing the sport for several years."
By the end of the year, he had reached 95th in the world rankings. That's when he started thinking about PyeongChang 2018. Needing to get into the top 60, and with his results improving all the time, that is beginning to look like a real possibility.
"If I qualify I'll be the first black skeleton athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics. Getting there would be huge," he says. "I truly believe this is what the Olympic spirit is all about. It's not just about conquering, it's about the struggle.
"If there's anything in this world that can bring hope, it's sport. And if I can make my dream become a reality, it shows that anybody can do it."