In Praise of the Lone Olympians

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Earlier this week, Prawat Nagvajara realized how badly he needed to talk to his coach. His cross-country skiing sprint event was imminent, but he couldn't get his preparation straight. "My coach is trying to explain to me something about the body building up lactic acid," he said, looking a little confused. "I have got to get straight what happens, how to warm up, how to prepare. I have to call her again."

This is not your average Olympian talking, but then Nagvajara, 43, isn't actually a world-class athlete. The first person ever to represent Thailand at a Winter Games, he was lapped and eliminated from his first event, the 30km, less than a third of the way through. Even in the relatively short time he spent on the Soldier Hollow course, he had time to fall, have the wind knocked out of him, get cramps and lose his goggles.

Nagvajara grew up in Bangkok playing keyboards in a teenage rock band; he was 18 before he ever saw snow. By entering the Olympic Games, he has joined an elite club: he is one of 11 athletes who are the sole representatives of their countries at these Salt Lake City Games. From 20-year-old Shiva Keshavan, who carried the hopes of 1.1 billion Indians with him down the icy luge track (he came in a surprising 33rd out of 50), to slalom skier Gian Matteo Giordani, who will represent the tiny European enclave of San Marino today, none of them entered believing they had a chance to end up on the podium. Some, like South African Alpine skier Alex Heath, think they could strike gold, if only they had the funding (and the training and equipment it buys) of the big national teams. Others are poster children for Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Games, who said that the most important thing in the Olympic Games was not to win, but to take part.

"I love the sport, and the chance to compete at this level is beyond a dream," says Nagvajara, who has never won a race. "I was so honored, and proud, and shy to carry the Thai flag. I didn't anticipate the magnitude of the event until then. I had just focused on skiing, on training. At the Opening Ceremony I thought, Oh boy, this is huge." A professor of engineering at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, Nagvajara was inspired to take up cross country skiing and compete in the Olympics after seeing Kenyan Philip Boit come 92nd, and last, in the 10km classical cross country event at Nagano. Waiting at the finish line for Boit, 20 minutes after he had crossed it himself, was gold medallist Bjørn Dæhlie, of Norway. The celebration that ensued, between first and last, became a classic Olympic moment replayed around the world.

"I was so surprised and I was so proud, because an Olympic champion was waiting for me," Boit said Wednesday. He's back at these Games having slashed 11minutes off his time. "He told me, 'Please keep it up. Don't let these Olympics be the last one.'" Boit returned home to Kenya, named his first-born child Dæhlie, and took the champion's advice to heart. Although a hiccup in sponsorship meant he only got four months training in before Salt Lake, he is now determined to train nonstop for the Turin 2006 games and make it to the top 10.

Boit first got on skis in 1996, after being approached by Nike to train for Nagano on the company dime. He is still competing using money from Nike and the Kenyan Olympic Committee. Other lone athletes have also struck it lucky with sponsorship. Swiss businessman Toni Hauswirth, who owns property in Fiji, took out an ad in a Fijian newspaper in 1999 offering an all-expenses paid trip to the Olympics (training base in Switzerland included) for the most promising ski candidate. Laurence Thoms, a ski instructor in New Zealand with a Fijian mother and passport, beat out the other applicants, none of whom had seen snow before.

Most of the 11, however, are like Nagvajara and his American wife Gina — they pay for everything themselves. The Nagvajaras estimate it has cost them about $10,000 to pay for travel to races in Switzerland, around the U.S. and Salt Lake. His Olympic uniform — a plain blue ski jacket with "Thailand" in silver thread on the back — was embroidered for free by a Salt Lake company two days before the Games began. He skis on equipment he bought three years ago, and the Bulgarian biathlon team waxes his skis as a favor.

The Thai professor's training regime was also a far cry from the strictly choreographed routines of the top teams. He skied weekends in Vermont, and weekdays on a deserted baseball field in his adopted hometown of Narbarth, Penn. In the summer, he cycled, used a Stairmaster, and played soccer and basketball with his university colleagues. He didn't confess his Olympic aspirations to them until days before he left for Salt Lake. "Of course not, he smiles shyly. "I thought most likely it would not happen."

But it did. Nagvajara qualified for Olympic entry by competing at internationally sanctioned races and convincing the Thai Olympic Committee to support his entry. Even after his dismal showing in the 30km event, he was ready to compete again this Tuesday in the 1.5K sprint — a race he'd never tried before. His volunteer coach, a former Bulgarian biathlete, had already returned to Craftsbury Nordic Center in Vermont, so he received final instructions over the phone. "If I ski lower than four minutes, gee, I'll really be celebrating," he said before crossing the line in 4:14.55, 68th out of a field of 71. Still, he managed to fall over again. "I was going to pass a fellow," he said. "I think I was too cocky."



SALT LAKE'S SINGLE-NATION TEAM ROSTER

Philip Boit, Kenya, Cross Country
Theodoros Christodoulou, Cyprus, Alpine skiing
Andrei Drygin, Tajikistan, Alpine skiing
Gian Matteo Giordani, San Marino, Alpine skiing
Alexander Heath, South Africa, Alpine skiing
Shiva Keshavan, India, Luge
Jayaram Khadka, Nepal, Cross country
Arturo Kinch, Costa Rica, Cross country
Isaac Menyoli, Cameroon, Cross country
Prawat Nagvajara, Thailand, Cross country
Patrick Singleton, Bermuda, Luge