Because of one girl’s determination to participate in winter sports regardless of her background, more than 100 people gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Nairobi on Thursday evening.
Sabrina Wanjiku Simader, 19, was on everyone’s lips at the event. She will be the first woman to ever represent Kenya at the Winter Olympics, having qualified to take part in the 2018 edition to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea, on February 9-25.
National Olympic Committee-Kenya (Nock) president Paul Tergat hailed her for ensuring Kenya is represented in the Winter Olympics for the first time since 2006. Sports Principal Secretary Karimi Kaberia called her “our hero”.
Her grandfather Ashford Njenga wished she wins a gold medal, with her grandmother Naomi Wanjiku saying an emphatic “huyo atashinda (she will win).” And a South Korean bank donated Sh12 million to sponsor her participation in the Olympics.
As the event went down, Sabrina — who addressed the gathering through a recorded video — was busy chasing glory in the Junior World Cup in Switzerland, barely a week before the Winter Olympics kick off.
“Ready for tomorrow,” she posted on her Facebook page at 8.30pm on Thursday, about the same time the Intercontinental Hotel event was coming to a close.
Such is the go-getting spirit that has seen the whole country place its hopes on Sabrina,19, a girl whose mother hails from Kirenga village in Lari, Kiambu County.
MOTHER MARRIED AUSTRIAN
Her mother married an Austrian after giving birth to Sabrina in Kenya, and a young Sabrina stayed in Kiambu for about a year before her mother came for her.
“I’m the one who raised her. The mother went abroad and left her with me,” Sabrina’s grandmother Wanjiku told Lifestyle.
While in Austria, Sabrina was introduced to skiing by her step-father.
“I learnt it from my step-father. He was passionate for skiing and he also has an own ski lift. So, I learnt it when I was young,” she told NTV two weeks ago.
“Skiing is a really tough sport because you’re going really fast down the hill on skis and you are going to about 120kph and so you have to be fit and healthy and strong and to train every day to get confident,” she added.
Through previously published videos of her skiing, one can tell Sabrina is a natural when it comes to moving on frozen water. She is often with a pair of ski poles which are used in controlling movement.
At the Winter Olympics, she will be competing under the alpine skiing category, one among the many events that include cross-country skiing, ice hockey, ski jumping, snowboard and speed skating.
In the alpine skiing category, she will be contesting in the giant slalom and the super giant slalom. Both competitions entail skiing through a set of poles, called gates in the sport’s lingo. The gates are placed in such a way that a participant’s sharpness in turning and braking are tested to the limits.
ONLY ONE CHANCE
Each competitor has only one chance to slide between the gates and the person who takes the shortest time in manoeuvring through them wins. The main difference between the giant slalom and the super giant slalom is the distance between the gates.
“I will proudly represent Kenya to the fullest,” Sabrina told NTV.
Kenya has hired an Austrian coach to train her ahead of the Winter Olympics, according to Mr Philip Boit — the first person to represent Kenya at the winter Olympics (in 1998) and who will be the chief of the Kenyan mission that will travel to South Korea to accompany Sabrina.
“The coach is a member of that community. He trains the girl then goes home,” said Mr Boit, who will be travelling to the Asian country tomorrow.
“Also, her school gives skiing scholarships. Most of the players are skiers, and that is a big advantage because they find time to train and they have quality coaches. At her school, her colleagues are the champions in Austria,” added Mr Boit.
Sabrina is expected to be among the few black people to participate in the Olympics. Africa, the home of most blacks, does not experience winter and thus there are no avenues for sports on ice. Thus, any black person in the sport is bound to stand out.
In a 2015 interview with Mkenya Ujerumani, a news website that focuses on Kenyans in the diaspora, Sabrina said she had learnt how to cope despite her being different from other participants.
'UNCOMFROTABLE IN THE BEGINNING'
“I am different but I want people to remember me for my exceptional performance and not just for having a different skin,” she said.
“In the beginning, people would stop and stare and it was uncomfortable. Most don’t know you, but are sceptical on your capabilities, wondering if you’ll be any good. I’m used to it now and I prefer to shock them with my performance,” she further told the publication.
Mr Tergat has attended a number of Winter Olympics and his observation is that Africans rarely participate.
“Every time that I’m walking around, going to these events, there is no single African participating,” he told attendants of the Thursday evening event. “We’re very privileged to have this young lady.”
Mr Tergat asked Kenyan parents who live abroad to bring forward more sports people like Sabrina.
“Let them encourage their young children to take up these sports so that instead of sending one athlete, we send five. It is easier for them to qualify back home here than in those countries because winter is the sport where there are competitions every year,” he said.
Added Mr Tergat: “Even going to Korea, Kenya will be among the few, if not the only, African countries participating in these Winter Olympic games.”
Sabrina’s contrast with the rest of the competitors is already causing a buzz in South Korea, according to Mr Francis Mutuku, the Nock deputy secretary-general.
“We have had discussions with a number of South Koreans who say that already the media hype about Sabrina participating is extremely big,” Mr Mutuku told the gathering on Thursday.
Speaking of contrasts, one Kenyan has seen it all; and that is Mr Boit, who took the risk to shift from athletics to cross-country skiing.
When sportswear manufacturer Nike started scouting for Kenyans to train in skiing, Mr Boit alongside Henry Bitok agreed to take the leap of faith.
Two years before the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Mr Boit had his first ever experience on ice during Nike’s training in Finland.
Mr Boit’s participation in the 1998 Olympics taught him a few home truths about racing on ice.
Unsurprisingly, he was the last among the 92 who took part in the 10-kilometre race. He finished about 20 minutes after the winner — Bjorn Daehlie from Norway — had crossed the line.
Videos of Mr Boit participating in the race show a labouring man sliding alone on most stretches, with the other contestants having long gone and left the track with visible marks.
The winner declined to take his medal until Mr Boit finished the race.
“The whole Norwegian team had heard about this strange guy from Africa who was trying to participate,” Bjorn Daehlie told the BBC in 2014. “We thought that was quite interesting and we were eager to see if he would succeed.”
Mr Boit, in the same interview, joked as he recalled what made him move so slowly.
“I fell down so many times,” he said. “Going uphill, the skis were collecting snow. It was like I had put on high heeled-shoes.”
Mr Daehlie’s selfless act of waiting for the last participant created a special bond between them. Weeks after the Olympics, Mr Boit’s wife delivered their firstborn and they named him after the Norwegian skiing legend.
Mr Boit would later take part in Winter Olympics editions of 2002 in Salt Lake City — where he finished 64th out of 67 competitors — and in 2006 in Turin where he was 92nd among 97 participants. He failed to qualify for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada.
“The challenges include the slipperiness of the surface. You will be skiing at 120kph and there are those obstacles you are negotiating. The moment you slip a bit and miss the grip that will enable you turn, you are already losing because every second counts. It’s like a 400-metre race. If you delay even by two seconds for every corner, you will have lost out,” he told Lifestyle.
Besides the Olympics, Mr Boit also participated in at least three other international ice races, and the earnings he made from the sport, including upkeep allowances from Nike, enabled him buy a matatu that he called Skier Express and the Skier Shop in Kesses, Uasin Gishu County. He later sold the matatu but the shop has advanced to become the Skier Supermarket, still located in Kesses.
With his experience on ice, Mr Boit is wishing for the best for Sabrina, who he has seen participate in the youth Winter Olympics in Norway in 2016.
“I’m looking forward to seeing her among the top 20. I think she can make it to top 20. At worst, she cannot be above 50 in the finals,” he said.
Because she has been training on ice since she was a child, Mr Boit explained, she is at a better position to compete than he was.
“That is a very big advantage because you can imagine that she has been doing it since nursery. She is no different from Europeans; no different from those who live in countries that experience winter. She started at the same age that the others start,” he said.
And during the Winter Olympics, Mr Boit hopes that Sabrina will maintain her focus.
“I know she has too much pressure for training but she is so much determined. She is someone who is hardworking. I never have doubts about her said Mr Boit adding “And she always told me, One day we’ll make it as Africans.”
Sabrina has been fundraising online to enable her mother travel with her to South Korea and to help her carry excess luggage.
“The remainder will be used for air travel expenses to distant races, because so far I can only participate in races that are accessible with the team bus,” she told Austrian publication Tips late last year.
“Skiing is a very expensive sport. I kindly request our Kenyan government to support us financially,” Sabrina told the crowd on Thursday in her recorded address.
But after the Korea Exchange Bank gave Sh12 million sponsorship through its Hana Card, Sabrina’s mother will now be able to travel to see her daughter compete.
ALL EYES ON SABRINA
With the Kenyan flag having been handed to Mr Boit at the Thursday event, and with the donation from the South Korean bank, all eyes will be on Sabrina. The first ladies’ giant slalom is scheduled for February 12.
“This might be a dream; but one day they will sing the national anthem for the Kenyan team,” Mr Boit said.
In fact, he added, there are other Kenyans living abroad who are taking up the sport.
“We have another one who almost qualified. There is a 19-year-old boy in Switzerland with Kenyan parents. They are from Makueni. But the parents work permanently in Switzerland,” said Mr Boit adding “He missed qualification by seven points. Sabrina tried hard to earn the slot and that is why I was advising this young boy to go to a skiing school. What helped Sabrina is the scholarship she has at a skiing school.”
He continued: “There is another boy who is 17 years old and in the US. He is a Kenyan also. The parents are Kenyan; they live in the US; so he is also doing freestyle. He was to qualify also but he is still in the junior category. In skiing, qualification has to be above 18. I think, in the next Olympics, I might be having around five. There are two other promising individuals from Finland. They are 16 years old.”
During her brief address to the gathering on Thursday, Sabrina said: “I’m so honoured to take part in the Olympic games which bring the whole world together. Unfortunately, I cannot join you because of my preparation.”
Her grandmother, was prayerful as she watched her granddaughter, now all-grown-up and not the toddler who could barely speak when she left Kenya.
“I pray for her. I want her to win gold,” said the 70-year-old.