Ghana, Nigeria skeleton racers set for Olympic berths

Akwasi Frimpong, Simdele Adeagbo
Cocoa/Candice Ward photography
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New Olympic bobsled and skeleton criteria that helped Nigeria qualify female bobsledders for Pyeongchang should also get skeleton racers from Ghana and Nigeria into the Winter Games, experts believe.

Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong is ranked 104th in the world men’s skeleton rankings. The Olympic skeleton field will be 30 men.

But Frimpong is all but assured an Olympic berth when the field is announced in mid-January because he is the only ranked slider from Africa, bobsled and skeleton officials said.

Same for Nigerian Simidele Adeagbo, who triple jumped at the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, in the women’s skeleton field.

Provided Adeagbo completes one more qualifying race, which she is expected to do January in Lake Placid. She is ranked 81st in the world.

Olympic bobsled and skeleton qualifying now grants the top athlete per continent a near-guaranteed Olympic place per event. So long as they complete five races on three different tracks in the last two seasons (and three races on two tracks this season).

Under previous rules, Frimpong and Adeagbo needed to be ranked in the top 60 and top 45 in the world, respectively, to make the Olympics. Not anymore.

For the Olympics, the international rankings will be cleaned of all athletes representing a nation that has already reached its maximum amount of quota spots. Frimpong and Adeagbo would easily move into the top 60 and top 45 under that criteria.

They could become the second and third Africans to compete in Olympic skeleton (Tyler Botha, South Africa, 2006).

Frimpong, 31, finished 44th out of 44 sliders at last season’s world championship in Koenigssee, Germany, more than four seconds behind the top men on each of his three runs.

He has raced on the lower-level North American Cup this season, finishing at or near the bottom in Park City, Calgary and Whistler.

Frimpong rejects “Cool Runnings” comparisons to the Jamaican bobsled team.

“I’m not out there to make a Disney movie,” he said. “I’m not there to be mediocre. I’m there to compete, but I also know my boundaries and limits. My wife told me when you go to the Games, you’re going to be the least experienced athlete. You have to accept that part. My plan has always been 2022 to win a medal for Africa.”

Frimpong moved from Ghana to the Netherlands at age 8 and became a junior champion sprinter. He flew to the U.S. for college, sprinting for Utah Valley University in 2010 and 2011.

“Holy cow, 99 percent white people,” Frimpong said of moving to Utah, according to the Deseret News. “And of course I was invited right away to come to church. I went, because you know what, they had food.”

Then he got injured and switched to bobsled, joining the Dutch national team as a push athlete after missing the London Olympics on the track. Frimpong raced in one World Cup but did not make the 2014 Winter Olympic team.

Frimpong said he then became the top salesman in the U.S. for Kirby Vacuum Company.

“I sold 32 Kirbys in 28 days,” he said.

Frimpong took one more foray into sports in 2015, becoming a skeleton racer and this time competing for his native Ghana. He confirmed this story from the Herald in Scotland:

He was born in Ghana and was raised in his formative years by his grandma, Minka. She brought up 10 children, including Frimpong, in a room measuring only four metres squared. They were so poor that they only had a full egg or entire bottle of Coca Cola on Christmas day.

Frimpong can become the second Winter Olympian from Ghana, joining Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong (aka the “Snow Leopard”), who was 47th out of 48 finishers in the 2010 Olympic men’s slalom.

Adeagbo, 36, can join the bobsledders as Nigeria’s first Winter Olympians.

She was born in Toronto to Nigerian parents. Adeagbo said she moved back to Nigeria when she was 2 months old — her dad needed to go back for requirements to become a university professor — and lived there until she was 6.

Then they moved to Memphis. Then Newfoundland. Finally, to Kentucky — high school near Louisville and college at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where she triple jumped.

Adeagbo graduated in 2003 and has worked for Nike ever since.

Including while triple jumping in 2008, when she set a personal best by a foot in the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying round and ranked third in the nation for the year. But she was eight inches shy of the Olympic qualifying standard. She retired.

Adeagbo continued with Nike in Oregon — once performing as a Serena Williams body double for a press kit — until taking a new job with the company in 2013 in South Africa. She has been a marketing manager for Nike’s Africa division for the last four years.

About this time last year, Adeagbo learned of the Nigerian bobsled team seeking to become the first Olympians from Africa in the sport. All three women on the team are former NCAA track and field athletes like Adeagbo.

“I was immediately intrigued,” she said. “I had heard about track and field athletes making the move to bobsled [Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams in Sochi, most recently] and I thought, hmm, that would be interesting.”

Adeagbo was told the bobsled team was pretty set and an immediate opportunity to make it for the Olympics in a year would be difficult. She let it simmer for a few months. In July, she flew from Johannesburg to an open combine tryout for the team in Houston.

The Nigerian federation called her back for her first on-ice sliding camp in Canada in September. She tried both bobsled and skeleton.

“By the end of the week I started to kind of see the opportunity was really in skeleton,” she said. “In terms of bobsled, the timing wasn’t quite right to integrate into the team.”

Adeagbo raced for the first time on Nov. 12 — three months before she may slide in Pyeongchang. She called her introduction to zooming over 50 miles per hour head-first down an icy chute “violent and turbulent.”

In four North American Cup races this fall, Adeagbo finished in last place every time, an average of about six seconds per run behind the winner.

“My goal [at first] was to just not scream bloody murder as I’m going down,” she said. “Within a few runs, your brain somehow catches up with the speed at which you’re going, and it starts slowing down.

“It’s been a lot of learning in a short amount of time with a very lofty goal.”

Adeagbo said that from the beginning she was told it takes eight years to develop into a world-class skeleton athlete, if it happens at all. She was also told that the Pyeongchang Olympics were a possibility for her given the continental representation spot.

“I think the sport should be as global and universal as possible,” Adeagbo said. “That’s what sport is about.”

She said the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation has not communicated to her whether she is safely in the Olympic field. Quota spots will be announced in mid-January for all countries.

“Based on different conversations and just kind of what I’ve observed in the sport and looking at the [ranking] list, it’s highly probable that if I do what I need to do, which is get that minimum requirement [of one more race], that I should be in for sure,” Adeagbo said.

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MORE: 100 Olympic storylines 100 days out from Pyeongchang

Akwasi Frimpong can be followed on Twitter — @FrimpongAkwasi. Simidele Adeagbo can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @SimiSleighs.

Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

Scotty James
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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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