Akwasi Frimpong became Africa’s first black male skeleton athlete in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. His journey, from growing up in a hut in Kumasi, Ghana to joining his mother in the Netherlands at the age of eight and eventually finding his way to Utah Valley University can be a beacon of hope to those who find themselves in unfavorable conditions.
Frimpong’s story, as told in the recently released short film Black Ice, is about hard work, determination, and many setbacks. Around the age of two, Frimpong’s mother left him and his brother under the care of his grandmother, Minka, as she went to look for a better life for her two sons in the Netherlands.
“My grandmother didn’t just take care of the two of us,” Frimpong said. “She also took care of eight other cousins. It’s kind of well known in Africa that the grandma takes care of the kids while her own kids go out to find jobs.”
Frimpong recalled sleeping on the concrete floor of a four-by-four meter, single room hut while having to share blankets with his cousins. Frimpong said during that time his grandmother taught him a very important lesson at the age of eight years old as he was leaving to join his mother in the Netherlands.
“One of the things she told me was; Akwasi, what you need for success is already in you and that it’s just a matter of believing in yourself and having the will to work hard and never give up,” Frimpong said. “That is something that has always been with me that I hold onto in tough times… It’s like hearing her voice whenever I want to give up.”
Upon his arrival in the Netherlands, Frimpong was enrolled in primary school where he had to become fluent in Dutch to keep up with his schoolwork. Frimpong attended a class to help international students learn the language every morning before going to his regular classes for the day.
“I really wanted to learn as quickly as possible so every Saturday I would hop on my bike at my house and I would bike 20 minutes, or so, to the library in Amsterdam and I would pick up ten books and start reading, ” Frimpong said. “I wanted to make friends and I wanted to be able to communicate with others.”
Frimpong’s ambition extended far beyond the walls of the classroom, as he went on to become the Dutch Junior National Champion in the 200-meter race under the mentorship of former Olympian Sammy Monsels. This was where Frimpong developed high aspirations of one day becoming an Olympic athlete.
Despite having what Frimpong describes as his god-given talents, he would still face many obstacles on his journey to the Olympic Games. One major bump in the road was his status as an illegal immigrant in the Netherlands which prevented him from traveling to international competitions. During this time Frimpong also suffered a torn achilles tendon which kept him out of competition for an extended time.
The injury allowed Frimpong the opportunity to seek higher education at universities in the United States where he could combine his Olympic desire with a great education. Frimpong was offered a scholarship to run track at Utah Valley University in 2008.
In May of 2010, Frimpong helped the UVU relay team break the school record during the Great West Conference Championships with a time of 41.05. In 2011, he helped the 4 x 400 meter relay team to a gold medal in the Great West Indoor Championships.
In 2012, Frimpong was a member of the Dutch 4 x 100 m relay team but was sidelined due to injury and missed out on qualifying for the Summer Olympic Games in London. Frimpong was later given another chance to make the 2014 Winter Olympic Games after the Dutch National team went to Park City, Utah and tried out Frimpong as a brakeman on the Bobsleigh team. Again, Frimpong missed out on an Olympic bid as his team failed to qualify for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.
“I was devastated, missing my Olympic dream twice and I had taken a break from sports for a while,” Frimpong said. “In 2015 my wife and I talked about how I really wanted to go back and follow through with my dream one more time.”
In 2018 Frimpong represented his home country of Ghana in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic games as Africa’s first skeleton athlete and just the second Winter Olympian from Ghana ever.
After becoming the first athlete from Africa to win an elite Skeleton race sanctioned by the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation in 2020, Frimpong tested positive for COVID-19 during qualifying for the 2022 Beijing games despite being just three spots shy of the top 60 that is required to qualify, essentially ending his chances for a bid to the 2022 winter games. To make matters worse, the International Olympic Committee dropped the continental quota system for this year’s games that would allow Frimpong to qualify as the only representative from the continent of Africa in the Skeleton. Frimpong’s appeal to the IOC was recently denied, sparking outrage among his supporters.
Despite another setback, Frimpong has a dream to become the first African to win a medal in Winter Olympic history. Whether he can achieve that dream or not, Frimpong has already lived up to the four-letter motto written on the back of his helmet.
Hope of a billion.
Brice Larson is currently a Junior at UVU majoring in communications with an emphasis in journalism and media studies. He enjoys everything about sports and one day hopes to become a college football analyst and play by play commentator.