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Ghana's 'Snow Leopard' readies for Games

By Paul Gittings and Ben Wyatt, CNN
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Ghana's "Snow Leopard"
  • Winter Games appearance comes only six years after first ski run on a dry slope
  • Dream of taking part is similar to sending a Ghanaian "to the moon" says Acheampong
  • 34-year-old supports a charity which attempts to protect the rare snow leopard
  • Winter Olympics
  • Ghana
  • Skiing

(CNN) -- Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, or the "Snow Leopard" as he has been dubbed, is making his final preparations for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

A skier preparing to take part in the Games at this point in the calendar is not the most sensational news, until it is understood the 31-year-old grew up in Accra, Ghana (where the annual average temperature is around 79 degrees Fahrenheit) and learnt to ski only six years ago on a dry slope.

Nkrumah-Acheampong hopes his remarkable and unconventional rise to prominence -- he achieved the strict qualifying criteria set by the world governing body of his sport from his training base at an artificial snow dome in Milton Keynes, England, where he was a former employee -- can act as inspiration to his countrymen.

"The response that I get from emails and phone calls, that more people are going to come into snow sports, that's what I'm hoping to achieve and 10 years from now Ghana should have a ski racer who is 10 times better than me," he told CNN.

The "Snow Leopard" first sprung to prominence after announcing his intention to qualify and compete in the downhill at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, despite only having taken up the sport in 2003.

10 years from now Ghana should have a ski racer who is 10 times better than me
--Kwame Nkrumah- Acheampong

"It took 30 minutes for me to be able to just go in a straight line, slow myself down and stop, and the instructor who was my friend, told me: 'You know something, just go and train yourself now, just carry on.' And that's when I started falling down," he said.

After becoming hooked on downhill and pleased with his natural ability he set about trying to qualify -- a feat that involved traveling around the world.

He narrowly missed qualifying for the Turin-based Games but came back stronger to insure his place in Canada, an achievement the 34-year-old is exceptionally proud of.

"I think it was like sending a Ghanaian to the moon, [but] apart from it being really cool -- I still wake up and still think to myself -- this is going to be really tough, people are going to be watching you -- you can't just go to the Olympics and just have fun," he added.

The father of two will compete in two events, the giant slalom and slalom, and is anxious not to be a figure of fun like British ski-jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who notoriously captured the headlines at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.

He prefers to take his cue from the Jamaican bob sleigh team who also competed in Calgary and inspired the popular film "Cool Runnings".

"The Jamaican bob sleigh team did actually try really hard to have really fast push off times, really moving down the course -- not all the factors were right for them -- and they crashed -- if they didn't crash, they would have done a really good time," he said.

"So I love being compared to Cool Runnings but not Eddie the "Eagle" or Eric the "Eel" (swimmer from Equatorial Guinea) because to me, sports is a serious thing.

"If you want to be a sportsman, be a sportsman. If you want to have fun then do sports for leisure. Don't take the seriousness of sport and make a mockery of it."

There is another serious point to the Ghanaian's participation, his efforts on behalf of the charity which attempts to protect the rare animal from which he gleans his nickname.

"I'm working with the Snow Leopard Trust, they protect the endangered snow leopard," he said.

"I'm also working with Sabre which is a registered charity in Britain, taking kids in tough areas out of London and out to the Alps, showing them a different side to life."

Nkrumah- Acheampong's ambition is to return with his family, who live in Milton Keynes, to Ghana and to open a dry ski slope.

In the meantime, his attentions are fully on next month where he will pit his skills against the likes of Bode Miller and Benjamin Raich.

"I don't just want to get down, but ski well and not come at the bottom of the table," he said.