2002: In Praise of the Lone Olympians

The following is an excerpt from an article published on February 21, 2002 at time.com:

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 Bjorn Dohlie, 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 Dohlie, 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.

Click here to read the entire article.

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