The challenge of Akwasi Frimpong

It’s one thing to be good at sports, another to actually compete. Then there’s the Olympics. ‘When it comes to performance, it’s about being the best that you can be,’ skeleton athlete Akwasi Frimpong muses. What is the key to competing on this, the highest level?

US-based athlete Akwasi Frimpong is gearing up to compete in the Winter Olympics 2018, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Lacking a personal coach, he trains daily with the US team, a 50-minute drive from his Utah home. Competing in the Olympics is a dream within his grasp, but it took awhile to get here.

Pushback

‘When I left Ghana I was eight years old,’ Frimpong recounts. ‘My mother picked me up to travel to the Netherlands. She had to force me into the airplane. In Holland it was cold, the leaves were falling, but we tried to make the best of it.’ An undocumented immigrant, he immediately faced opposition. The Dutch political climate in 1995 was getting increasingly hostile towards non-white immigrants. He and his mother, famous gospel singer Esther Amoako, had left Ghana to secure a better future, but hit a wall.

Then Frimpong discovered he excelled at sprinting. He got a chance to enroll in the Johan Cruijff Academy, catching the eye of the Dutch football legend himself. Frimpong garnered national attention when his fight for a residency permit and, eventually, Dutch citizenship got spearheaded by that same Johan Cruijff, who vouched for him with the government.

‘What he did, in contrast to the Dutch immigration service, was see me as a human being instead of a number. He believed in me and called me a hero on national television. I’m grateful to Mr. Cruijff to this day.’

No matter how hard it gets

All of which is to say: Frimpong has seen the deck stacked against him many times, yet always came out on top. The Winter Olympics 2018 are no different. Here’s an athlete with only two years of skeleton experience under his belt, where the competition has decades of experience. And Frimpong has yet to reach the top 60 worldwide ranking needed to qualify for the event. It’s a tough spot that took its toll on his performance. ‘I was comparing myself too much with other athletes, who’d been doing this for twelve years. That was giving me a lot of stress. I had to come back down to myself, remember what my goals are, remember to be patient. Listening to my favorite music.’

‘But,’ he laughs, ‘I thrive under adversity.’

Surely there’s a secret? For Frimpong, it’s all about the mental game. ‘That’s the most important thing. Coaching, diet; all athletes have this. It’s the mental game that sets you apart. Can you stay relaxed and focus on yourself instead of everything else?’ To achieve this, he is an avid listener of motivational speeches, rises early and is unshakeable in his pursuit of success.

And: he keeps a journal. ‘It’s important for athletes to write down the different things you do. How did I feel today when I went to the start to push a sled? How did I do? What aided me? The times, the different factors. Writing that down in a journal helps me perform.’

The dream

That takes some effort, of course. Another hurdle is that Ghana isn’t exactly known for its wintery athletics. In the history of the Winter Olympics, only one other Ghanaian ever competed: alpine skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, in Vancouver 2010.

And despite a great fondness for Dutch stroopwafels (‘We have a waffle iron in the house.’), syrup waffles, he strictly maintains a high-protein diet featured on his own blog, https://www.akwasifrimpong.com/blog.

Insurmountable challenges? This is all familiar terrain for Frimpong. He’s seen and overcome much worse, and doesn’t even think of giving up. ‘I’ve been dreaming about this goal for fourteen years and nobody’s stopping me. I’m here to represent Ghana in the Winter Olympics.’