As they swap flip-flops for ski boots, Lais da Silva Souza and Joselane Rodrigues dos Santos have more to learn than other Winter Olympic hopefuls: The Brazilians only took up skiing five months ago.
The two gymnasts were picked by the Confederation of Brazilian Snow Sports during a May tryout on trampolines, and will attempt to qualify as the country’s first Olympic acrobatic skiers. On a training trip to Canada in July, Dos Santos, 29, saw snow for the first time.
“It reminded me of the frost in my freezer,” she said. “I lost count of the number of times I fell. I even fell off the ski lift.”
With about $120,000 of funding from the confederation, they are aiming to follow the likes of Kenyan cross-country skier Philip Boit in 1998 and the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team in making a crossover into winter sports. Dos Santos and Souza finished 19th and 22nd respectively out of 23 skiers in their first competition today in Ruka, Finland.
On a recent training day at a dry-slope ski park outside Sao Paulo, Dos Santos and Souza wear flip-flops and vests on a warm Southern Hemisphere spring day and look more like surfers than skiers.
The broad-shouldered Souza, 24, clipped on ski boots and skis, and rubbed paraffin onto her skis before sliding to her starting position on a ramp that a construction worker just hosed down with water.
The 1.5-meter (5-foot) tall Souza dropped into a squat, then burst up onto her skis, hitting a speed of about 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour before taking off. She flipped 360 degrees and landed with a thud onto a $20,000 air bag purchased especially for her and Dos Santos.
Acrobatic skiing, known as aerials, was added to the Winter Games in 1994. Skiers receive marks for their display, as in gymnastics.
“It’s not like learning to run a marathon, you need to learn a new skill set,” said David Wallechinsky, author of “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.” “It’s dangerous and it’s difficult.”
A group of Jamaican amateur sprinters qualified for the bobsled for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. They crashed on the first run but inspired the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings,” which made $68.8 million at the U.S. box office.
Boit, a distance runner, became Kenya’s first Winter Olympian in a cross-country ski race 10 years later. Nike Inc. (NKE:US) paid for him to train in Finland for two years before the event. He was cheered and lifted into the air by other racers when he finished last in Nagano, Japan, Wallechinsky said.
The tale of Brazil’s first aerials team began when Ryan Snow, who coached the U.S. team at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, turned up at the confederation’s 11th floor office in Sao Paulo in May. Snow, a Canadian whose wife is Brazilian, pitched his idea to lead the team to officials including technical director Pedro Cavazzoni.
“Aerials was on our radar but we didn’t have the staff, and that’s when Ryan appeared,” said Cavazzoni, a 24-year-old sports science graduate.
The confederation, which gets funding from the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Internet furniture store Oppa Design Ltda. and French sports retailer Oxylane Group, helps bankroll 50 winter athletes.
Snow says he speaks little Portuguese and communicates with the gymnasts using sign language and Google Inc.’s translation tool. His initial plan to qualify them for the 2018 games was brought forward when he saw two spots in Russia were available.
To make it for the Feb. 7 start at Sochi, they need to score points first in Europa Cup and then World Cup events.
“Basically if they don’t finish last in every competition” they will qualify, Snow said. “By the time the next Olympics come, this opportunity probably won’t be around anymore.”
In sub-zero temperatures in Finland, Dos Santos completed both jumps today without crashing, Snow said. Souza couldn’t stay upright on her second jump. They have a second day of competition tomorrow.
Other gymnasts have become aerial skiers, including Australia’s Lydia Lassila, who won the gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Australia set up an aerial skiing program in 1998. China “zeroed in” on the discipline about 10 years ago and won the silver and bronze in Vancouver, Wallechinsky said.
There aren’t any ski resorts in Brazil and snow isn’t essential for core training in acrobatic skiing. Athletes typically practice by launching themselves into a swimming pool. Landing on an airbag is a first for the sport, according to Snow.
Souza competed for Brazil as a 15-year-old gymnast at the 2004 Athens Games. Dos Santos is a gymnastics teacher who has competed in national championships. Their biggest challenge is landing upright on their skis, something they can’t practice in Brazil, Snow said. The landing hill has a 33-degree gradient and is 70 meters long.
“When you look down it looks pretty steep,” he said, clutching an iPad he uses to film each jump. “Even for experienced skiers, it’s intimidating.”
In one of their first sessions, Dos Santos fell and one of her skis gashed her wrist. She has had 11 operations as a gymnast.
“My family say I’m crazy,” said Dos Santos. “They tell me this sport isn’t for me.”
Souza says she has had surgery on her right knee eight times. She missed the 2012 Olympics in London after breaking a finger a week before competition.
“I never imagined I would do anything like this in my life,” Souza said. “But if others can do it, why not us?”
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