Paraguayan skier’s long road to Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia — Julia Marino doesn’t speak fluent Spanish. She went two decades without stepping foot in her native country.

Yet she is embraced in Paraguay as the nation’s first Winter Olympian.

It is very fitting that on Friday night she will wave a national flag that has different images on the front and back at the Opening Ceremony.

“I’m so excited to have the honor to be the first to represent where I’m from for the Winter Games,” Marino, 21, said in a telephone interview from her Olympic Village room. “It’s a really unique way to give back to where I’m from and reconnect.”

Marino is a slopestyle skier from Winchester, Mass., Boulder, Colo., and, for the first several months of her life, the village of Bahia Negra, Paraguay, about 500 miles north of the capital of Asuncion.

A Boston area couple adopted her and then a boy named Mark, who is seven months younger and from Asuncion, and essentially raised twins. Her adoptive father died of a heart attack in 2007.

She started skiing at age 2 or 3 and began excelling in freestyle skiing as a teenager, competing as an American with the likes of 2014 U.S. Olympians Julia Krass and Annalisa Drew.

When she was 19, the International Olympic Committee added slopestyle skiing to the Olympic program for 2014.

A dual citizen, Marino got to thinking about what it meant to represent a nation in an Olympics and decided Paraguay was where she was from. Even though she had been competing as an American.

That triggered her to Google “Paraguay” and “Olympics,” which yielded few results. Snow is foreign to this nation of no Winter Olympic history. Its only Summer Olympic medal was a men’s soccer silver in 2004.

She spent a year delving, researching and pursuing. Her godmother, who lives in Paraguay, had connections with the National Olympic Committee to get the process rolling.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association supported her switch to Paraguay a year ago, the beginning of a long, logistical road to Sochi.

Marino and Paraguay’s Olympic Committee started a ski association from scratch to be eligible to compete in the Olympics. The International Ski Federation recognized Paraguay three months ago, clearing the way for her to go to Sochi.

She sketched out her national ski suit, but there was still work to be done.

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She returned to Paraguay for the first time in 20 years in November, spending 10 days in Asuncion. She met with the National Olympic Committee, the sports ministry and possible sponsors.

Her mission was acceptance. She had to prove she was not just switching countries for an easier path to the Olympics with less domestic competition for a berth.

She took a week to prepare an introductory speech, in Spanish, to tell the story of her humble village roots, adoption to America and pride to be from Paraguay.

After she finished, an audience of reporters and sports governing body presidents stood and applauded.

“It took a lot of work to make my athletic dream possible,” Marino said. “It’s been a really special process.”

Marino has persevered with her skiing, too, coming back from a torn ACL in 2009 and a broken collarbone last year.

Now, at the Olympic Village, she introduces herself with pride to athletes from some 200-member delegations. When she says, “Paraguay,” the reaction is usually the same.

“I see their faces,” Marino said. “They’re impressed.”

Marino expects the best moment of her first Olympics will not come in competition but in Fisht Stadium on Friday night during the Parade of Nations. Her adoptive mother and brother will be in the crowd.

“I don’t think I can prepare myself enough for that moment,” she said.

She won’t be alone on the stadium floor. A Paraguayan official, coach and trainer Erik Kaloyanides will be at her side as she carries the flag between Pakistan and Peru. Kaloyanides played left guard at Syracuse from 1998 to 2002.

The people of Paraguay will watch her, too. Marino said the nation is streaming or broadcasting both the Opening Ceremony and her competition Tuesday.

“I’m seeing the most support and love,” she said. “I felt that right away when I was down there … explaining my story and reasoning for all of this.”

On Tuesday, she will perform tricks racing down a venue deemed unsafe by slopestyle snowboarders this week. The top 12 from qualifying advance to the final later that day.

“There’s some dangerous options [on the course], but I don’t think it’s nothing that anybody, both men and women snowboard and skiing, can’t handle,” said Marino, who took second in her final World Cup race as an American last season and 17th and 18th in her first two for Paraguay this season. “I really don’t have any complaints about the course.”

Marino’s post-Olympic plans include finishing her psychology degree from the University of Colorado in spring 2015. Before that, she wants to return to Paraguay and maybe visit her birthplace for the first time since she was an infant.

There is some risk in going back to Bahia Negra, a poor village that is not easy to fly or drive into, she said. Marino has no interest in finding her birth parents, who are unknown to her due to a closed adoption. She says several people have claimed to be her mother and father on Facebook and Twitter, posting pictures.

That’s been disheartening, but if she knew who the real ones were, she would like to relay a positive message.

“I would wish them nothing but thanks and so much gratitude for giving me this opportunity and allowing me to live in the United States,” Marino said, “but I don’t really have any strong motivation to find who my parents are.”

Marino may be the only athlete from her nation, the only option to carry the Paraguayan flag Friday and sans roommate in the village, but she sees familiarities across the Games.

She knows a Chilean slopestyle skier, and she empathizes with the formerly cash-strapped Jamaican Bobsled Team.

“Everybody has a story,” Marino said. “There’s something unique about every athlete you talk to.”