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Locals support African ski racer

'Snow Leopard' first Winter Olympian from Ghana

African ski racer Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong needed little more than six years on skis in order to become the first Ghanaian to qualify for the Winter Games.

But having to prepare for the Olympics with virtually no financial support, the 35-year-old quickly realized that qualifying was merely the beginning of his odyssey.

Luckily for him and his family, who didn't even have accommodations in the area until recently, the tale of "The Snow Leopard" is sweeping across the West Coast much like that of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

Supporters like Squamish's Craig Davidiuk of Ultimate Promotions are offering their services and goods to help the one-man Ghanaian Olympic Team fulfill the dream.

Davidiuk is sponsoring Nkrumah-Acheampong with 1,500 trading pins in an effort to help spread his story, which is even rarer than the cat for which he is named.

Davidiuk said he designed the large batch of star-shaped pins, which are printed with the Ghana Ski Team name and have an estimated value of $2,000, because he was touched by Nkrumah-Acheampong's struggle and wanted to support his aspirations.

"It's just my little bit of trying to capture some essence of the Olympic spirit," he said.

"For me, I've been running pin orders for lots of corporations, but it's really the first time I've had a chance to connect with an athlete, and an athlete that needs our community support."

On Wednesday (Feb. 10), Nkrumah-Acheampong was headed for Whistler from Mount Washington, where the skier spent last winter training thanks to support from the resort and the Comox Valley community. He said he is overwhelmed by the warm reception offered by British Columbians, including Davidiuk.

"I think it's fantastic. We keep telling each other it's the hand of God working through individuals. So when someone like Craig comes up and says 'I'll do this for you at my cost,' what can you say? It's a weight lifted off your shoulders," he said.

Nkrumah-Acheampong was born in Glasgow, Scotland but grew up in Ghana before moving to Britain in 2000. Despite growing up in a climate without snow, where temperatures often rise above 30 C, he acquired a penchant for flying down the artificial slopes at Xscape snow dome in Milton Keynes in his spare time while working as a receptionist.

Nkrumah-Acheampong went on to qualify for the Olympic slalom and giant slalom after recording personal bests at the Iranian National Championships last season.

He said he doesn't expect to be a medal contender when he flies down Whistler Mountain, but he's determined not to finish at the bottom of the pack.

"Somebody else has to take that position so my job is to hunt them down," he said with a chuckle.

He admits that he's been too busy over the last couple of weeks to feel anxious. He finally found accommodation for his family earlier this month when the owners of Drumkeeran House in Pemberton suggested they stay at their lodge free of charge.

International media and curious Canadians have been vigorously tracking Nkrumah-Acheampong, perhaps foreseeing a story similar to that of the Jamaican Bobsled Team, which inspired the movie Cool Runnings.

According to manager Richard Harpham, The Snow Leopard is definitely not as elusive as his namesake, and will likely be a fan favourite in Whistler.

"Kwame is a very down to Earth person and very likeable, and therefore people pick up on that straight away," he said.

"I think what he does offer people is a chance to be a part of an Olympics because he's very approachable, whereas perhaps it's less so with other teams and people."

The Snow Leopard is competing in giant slalom and slalom events on Feb. 21 and 27.