Sabrina Simader: Kenya's 'Snow Leopard' aiming for Olympic glory

By Yemisi Adegoke
BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSabrina Simader is the first Kenyan first woman to take part in alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics

When Sabrina Simader moved to Austria from her home in Kenya, she was fascinated by the snow.

Years later, that initial interest in the mountains and ski slopes of her new home has evolved into a passion which has put her on a path to making history - the 19-year-old is set to become the first female alpine skier to represent Kenya at the Winter Olympics.

"It was my step-father's dream to have a Kenyan [in the Winter Olympics]," Simader told the BBC, before adding: "And mine too."

'This girl can ski'

Her journey to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, started when she was just three years old. Her step-father Josef owned a ski lift and took Simader out on the slopes. He acted as her trainer and taught her what she needed to know.

But as one of the only black skiers in the region, her presence on the slopes often drew stares from onlookers.

"In school I was always the only black girl," she said. "At the beginning it was hard, they were always watching me."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSimader was born in Kenya, but moved to Austria when she was three

But as she got better on her skis, she says people became impressed by her technique and her speed.

"They were really shocked that a black girl can ski like like this," she said.

Soon it became clear that the dream she and her stepfather shared could come true - and despite growing up in Austria and spending the majority of her life there, Simader says choosing to represent Kenya was a no-brainer.

"My mother is from Kenya, my family is from Kenya," she explained. "I never want to leave my motherland."

The last time she visited Kenya was five years ago, but Simader says the reaction and support from the Kenyan public has been positive.

"Kenyans are really impressed," she said. "They have been really supportive and that gives me power."

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Simader qualified for the Games after competing in the World Championships last February, making her the second Kenyan after Philip Boit to represent the East African nation at the Winter Games.

She also represented Kenya at the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics in Norway, when she came in the top 25 of all three disciplines she competed in.

Crowdfunded skier

But unlike the public support, Simader says things have been "difficult" with the Kenyan National Olympics Committee - something she attributes to a lack of awareness about the sport, the equipment and huge costs attached to it.

The BBC has contacted the Kenyan NOC and is awaiting a response.

Simader estimates that it costs around €200,000 ($250,000; £175,000) to fund an entire season, and though the NOC supported her during the World Championships last February, she has largely been helped by her four sponsors, without whom she says she wouldn't have achieved what she has done so far.

To fund her Olympic bid and ensure she can fulfil her dream, she has also turned to crowdfunding.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHer loyalty remains with her country of birth

And as she gears up for the biggest stage of all, Simader says the stares from onlookers have resurfaced.

She is the only African woman to qualify for alpine skiing in the Games and, outside Austria, she remains relatively unknown.

But the looks do not deter her.

"Stares give me a push," she said." That I can make it. I can prove myself."

Her aim for the Games is simple, to compete well and show the world that "a Kenyan girl can ski really fast".

And with the emergence of the Nigerian Bobsleigh team she welcomes not being the only African in the competition.

"It's great not to be alone as an African competing," she said. "I'm happy the other guys can compete and show [the world] what Africans can do."

Winter Olympics: Who Are The Africans competing at Pyeongchang 2018?

  • Akwasi Frimpong

    • Age: 31
    • Country: Ghana
    • Sport: Skeleton

    Akwasi Frimpong founded Ghana’s national Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (BSF-Ghana) in 2016. 

    Frimpong used to be a sprinter but an achilles injury forced him to take up another sport.  

    It takes about four to six years to actually really become very competitive and learn the sport because it goes so fast your brain can’t even catch up to it.
  • Sabrina Simader

    • Age: 19
    • Country: Kenya
    • Sport: Alpine Skiing

    Simader, whose family moved to Austria when she was three, is the first alpine skier to represent Kenya at the Winter Olympics.  

    She became a competitive skier in 2013. In 2016 she represented the East African nation at the Winter Youth Olympics in Norway. 

    Kenyans are really impressed. They have been really supportive and that gives me power.
  • Mialitiana Clerc

    • Age: 16
    • Country: Madagascar
    • Sport: Alpine Skiing

    Mialitiana Clerc learnt to ski at the age of three in France. She turned 16 on November 16, 2017 making her one of the youngest athletes at the games. 

  • Samir Azzimani

    • Age: 40
    • Country: Morocco
    • Sport: Cross-Country Skiing

    Samir Azzimani previously competed in alpine skiing before switching to cross-country skiing.  

  • Adam Lamhamedi

    • Age: 22
    • Country: Morocco
    • Sport: Alpine Skiing

    Moroccan-Canadian Adam Lamhamedi made history when he became the first African to win gold at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Austria in 2012.  

  • Moriam Seun Adigun

    • Age: 31
    • Country: Nigeria
    • Sport: Bobsleigh

    Seun Adigun found Nigeria’s first Bobsleigh team. She is the driver of the team.   

    The former track and field athlete competed in the 100m hurdles at 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  

    It's surreal . . Nigeria have never had anyone in the Winter Olympics and they're excited to see that happen.
  • Akuoma Omeoga

    • Age: 25
    • Country: Nigeria
    • Sport: Bobsleigh

    Akuoma is the “brakewoman” of Nigeria’s first ever bobsleigh team.  

    She also works in healthcare recruitment.  

  • Ngozi Onwumere

    • Age: 26
    • Country: Nigeria
    • Sport: Bobsleigh

    Ngozi Onwumere is a track and field athlete who had previously represented Nigeria in the 2015 All African games. 

  • Simidele Adeagbo

    • Age: 36
    • Country: Nigeria
    • Sport: Skeleton

    Following a nine-year break from competitive sports, Simidele Adeagbo was inspired by the Nigerian Bobsleigh team and decided to become a skeleton athlete.  

    Adeagbo is the first Nigerian to compete in this sport at the Winter Olympics.  

  • Connor Wilson

    • Age: 21
    • Country: South Africa 
    • Sport: Alpine skiing

    Connor Wilson studied to be a vet at the University of Vermont in the US. 

  • Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean

    • Age: 23
    • Country: Togo
    • Sport: Cross-Country Skiing

     Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean was previously a member of France’s junior cross-country ski team, before switching to represent Togo, the country where she was born. 

  • Alessia Afi Dipol

    • Age: 22
    • Country: Togo
    • Sport: Alpine Skiing

    Despite having no familial ties to Togo, Italian-born and raised, Alessia Afi Dipol chooses to represent the West African country. 

    The Alpine skier first competed under the Togolese flag at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. 

  • Shannon-Ogbani Abeda

    • Age: 21
    • Country: Eritrea
    • Sport: Alpine skiing

    Abeda grew up in Canada and wanted to be an ice hockey player, but his parents thought skiing would be a better sport for him.  

    He’s the first Eritrean to represent the country at the Winter Olympics. 

    I know it’s not common for an Eritrean like myself to be a skier, but Eriteans are very patriotic people. When they see someone competing or representing Eritrea in a positive light, they’re very happy

Photo Credits:

Matthias Hangst/Getty Images, Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images, Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images, Shaun Botterill/Getty Images, Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images, Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images, ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images, Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images, Courtney Hoffos

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