In Praise of Lost Causes

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Menyoli only began training seriously last summer after several years of "putzing around"

If there were a prize for Most Unlikely to Succeed in Sport at Salt Lake, Isaac Menyoli would be a front-runner. The 29-year-old cross-country skier from Cameroon is his nation's first-ever Winter Games representative. He hits the trails in Salt Lake with a mission in mind: to draw attention to the need for AIDS education in his homeland. He spoke with TIME's Jeff Chu last week from his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Excerpts:

TIME: You've gotten a lot of media attention, which is what you wanted.
Menyoli: I am surprised. Several months ago, nobody knew me. I had in my mind that I wanted to ski for a reason. Then after that, people wanted to find out more. I already had organizations who wanted to help my cause. I didn't know the media would take it so seriously. Right now, it's not really that good for me. I wanted [the attention] after the race, but before the race, I don't want to be talking so much. But the media, they come calling, saying, "I want the story! I want the story!" I don't have time to train, to work.

TIME: At the last Winter Games, [Kenyan cross-country skier] Philip Boit got all the attention. Now it's you.
Menyoli: He's still there. He's doing well. He's now like a veteran and nobody wants to talk to him anymore. If I go to Turin [for the Winter Games in 2006], they won't want to talk to me. they'll want to talk to the next guy.

TIME: When did you first get interested in skiing?
Menyoli: Way back in the 1980s. I thought it was cool. It was the Calgary Games that I think they had on TV. Then I tried it about five years ago after I came to Milwaukee. People count those five years like I was a real skier or something. I wasn't. It was just for fun. I always do it for fun, even now. In those five years, I probably skied 50 times. All those years, I was just putzing around. I wasn't serious. This is serious. This is the first time I have done anything serious in terms of skiing.

TIME: How about Alpine skiing?
Menyoli: I don't want to do downhill. I want to keep my sanity. I don't want to hurt myself. I have done downhill, and it does help my cross-country. But I will never become a giant slalom racer. It's just risky. Why would you want to go through that? I could slam into a tree and just die! Cross-country skiing has some risk, but you can't really just hurt yourself. The speeds are not high.

TIME: How has your training gone?
Menyoli: It's just terrible. I'm not happy with the way that we have no snow in Wisconsin. Yesterday, it was 55 [degrees Fahrenheit]. Man. Last year, we had so much snow. This is the wrong year to go to Winter Olympics! Maybe I should have done the Tour de France. Just so you know, almost 98% of my training has been on dry land. So I have trained only on roller skis, a piece of metal with two wheels at the end. The last 2% was when I was racing. That's when I have skied on snow, when I was racing for qualification in Alaska and Canada. It's just terrible. I'm such an amateur skier and I have to deal with no snow! It's tough.

TIME: Have you been improving?
Menyoli: It's so hard to tell. I can't really tell if I'm improving because skiing on snow is so different. I will only be able to tell in Salt Lake City.

TIME: What kind of support have you had from Cameroon?
Menyoli: Only administrative support from the national organization (the NOC). I tried to do this through FIS and they said they don't talk to individuals. The NOC were responsible for getting my code through FIS [the International Ski Federation], which I needed to qualify. My bosses [at his architecture firm in Milwaukee] have been amazing. They have supported me so much. I owe them. Some firms would have just said, "No."

TIME: When did you decide to do the Olympics?
Menyoli: When I went to Cameroon in 2000. I liked to race but I never expected that I would ski in the Olympics. There was no reason, because it wasn't like I would win an award or anything. But then I went to Cameroon and saw the suffering and it's really terrible out there. People are just so illiterate about the HIV/AIDS problem. They don't accept that it exists. So I thought, I can punish my body, almost like I am sacrificing myself. I want to ski for a reason, to let them open their ears and listen. I want to tell people that they really have to watch out, that AIDS is serious. If people don't start taking drastic steps for prevention, then the whole continent will be affected. I guess that will be bye-bye to mankind.

TIME: But how did you make the connection between the Olympics and AIDS education?
Menyoli: I had heard about organizations going to Africa, having conferences, talking to people. But the people say, "Aw, AIDS is just a conspiracy." I thought, if I ski, people will say, "Wait, who is this guy?" And if I have that opportunity, I could be in the media and talk over the radio. Then I can tell people that they really have to watch out, that it is serious. After the games, I will go to Cameroon and I'm hoping to be on TV. We have just one TV station and I want to talk about my experiences.

TIME: Have you lost any friends?
Menyoli: I have friends who have died, and I suspect AIDS was the case. But the bad thing is that people just say it is a conspiracy. When someone dies, they say, "No, it's witchcraft or voodoo."

TIME: Who is paying for this whole effort?
Menyoli: It's self-funded. I took family money to do this — $15,000 . . . That money, if I had given it straight to Africa, I probably would not have saved many people. So I thought I could use the money this way.

TIME: What do you expect to find when you get to the Olympics?
Menyoli: I'm just going to go out and race and speak out for charity reasons. I don't expect any miracles or anything. My family thinks I should go win the gold. They don't really know what I am doing. I also always wanted to meet those other skiers. I've finally met the U.S. and Canadian ones. But it will be really exciting to see the Europeans — the Scandinavians and the Italians. I love the Italian ski team! They work so hard and when they gain success, they are so happy.

TIME: Who are your skiing role models?
Menyoli: The guy who really amazes me right now is Per Elofsson. I like that he is quiet. He doesn't want a lot of attention. He just races.

TIME: Will you introduce yourself to Elofsson and the Italians?
Menyoli: I don't know how they will take it. I am sure that now you guys are getting me out there, those guys will know me. And if they introduce themselves to me, then that will be a happy party.