Hello, Akwasi, let’s start with an introduction for Youth Time readers. The Wikipedia page says you are a Dutch-Ghanaian sprinter, bobsledder, and skeleton athlete. Do you want to add anything else to this list?
Well, first, I am a father and a husband. And as many people know, I’m a former Dutch-Ghanaian sprinter, indeed former bobsledder for the Netherlands team and 2018 Winter Olympian in the sport of skeleton for my birth country, Ghana. I am also the first African athlete in history to win a skeleton race, which happened on February 29, 2020 during the USA Western regionals in Park City, Utah. I’m a motivational speaker and an entrepreneur. So that’s a few things out there.
That’s quite a long list, and clearly you have a lot going on. Not every person can say that they have switched nationalities, can you explain more about this part?
Sure, it’s actually a little bit confusing. First, I don’t think everything on Wikipedia is right. I have tried to change the information numerous times, but it remains there. So, here is my story: I was born in Ghana in February 1986. I went to the Netherlands with my mom when I was 8 years old, in 1995. I obtained Dutch nationality in 2008, but I’ve always kept my Ghana passport, my Ghana nationality. I have both Dutch and Ghana passports, so I didn’t switch nationalities. What I did do is I decided at around the age of 30 years old to compete for my native country, Ghana.
So, what mainly drove you to compete for Ghana?
I felt that I had done so much for the Netherlands when I lived there. I did a lot for the youth out there. I’ve done that here in the US as well with a track and field competition called the GoldenSprint Challenge, where we donate money to Special Olympics Utah. Special Olympics Utah. I have always serviced the communities where I live. And I felt like I’ve done a lot of community work in the Netherlands and the USA, but nothing in the form of giving back for my birth country Ghana. This was an opportunity for me to do something. And competing in the sport of skeleton became an option.
I was advised by my former coach to give the skeleton a try. And she thought it would also be great to do it for Ghana, since Ghana doesn’t have a team. And furthermore, I never switched nationalities just because I thought it would be easy for me to qualify for Ghana. That’s what people assume, which is okay. Obviously, the qualification for Ghana and the African continent in general back then was easier. But when I started in the summer of 2016, my intention was to go after Africa’s first ever Winter Olympic Games medal and I knew it was going to take time, so I had my eyes set on Beijing 2022 and never on
When you realized you wanted to compete for Ghana . . . what happened next?
You need to understand that any sport, including skeleton, is not so easy. You have to get better and compete with some of the big nations such as the USA, Russia, and Germany. So just competing for Ghana, just for making it to the Olympics, was never my intention. I didn’t even know that I was able to qualify for the Winter Olympic Games in 2018 until about July 2017, when I went to the Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation Congress, and one of their board members, Ben Sandford came up to me and said: “Akwasi, we noticed you’d been interested in going to the 2022 Olympic Games. But do you know that you have a good chance to qualify for the 2018 Olympic Games?” I was flabbergasted that that was even possible, because I didn’t know about the rules. It was surreal that I could have a spot for Africa if I made it in top 60 clean-list and competed on 5 major bobsled tracks within 2 years to show that I was experienced enough to represent Africa.
Speaking about switching sports, what made you do that, and what are the pros and cons of each sport that you have tried?
To go back to it, in 2012, as a sprinter, I missed the 2012 London Olympic Games for the Dutch team. I was part of the pre-Olympic 4×100-meter relay team. Then I had a bad tendon injury behind my left knee. When it came down to qualification to pick the top six for the relay team for the London Olympic Games, I did not make it, because during the Dutch National Championships, I did not even advance to the finals. Even though I was injured, I gave it a shot anyway. Then I was recruited by the Dutch bobsleigh team to train for the 2014 Sochi Olympic games in bobsledding. I wasn’t really interested in the first place, because my goal was always to compete in the summer Olympic Games in track
I gave it some thought and decided to give it a shot – it was a second opportunity for me to make my dream as an Olympian become a reality. I could use my speed as an athlete, as a brakeman I was able to do that. Unfortunately, I became only a second alternate athlete to go and the second alternate was not allowed to travel to the Sochi Olympic Games. So, speaking about transition from track and field to bobsledding and then to skeleton . . . You know, the mentality and the mind-set of the training is the same. I was able to use my speed as an athlete. That’s the reason why I was recruited to do bobsled and skeleton in the first place. I still use a lot of my track and field speed in the skeleton training. Bending over to push a sled in skeleton is different. You must learn the technique of that and learn how to navigate a sled downhill. That’s something I’m still getting better at.
Wow, your persistence is impressive, Akwasi. Three times and three different sports, every time trying to get to the Olympics. In 2018, you finally became the only African male athlete representing the African continent in skeleton at the Winter Olympics. How did it feel to be the first?
It was worth it! To compete at the Olympic Games . . . I think for anybody who gets a chance to experience that, it’s an honour and a privilege. I had three major goals there. First, was to break a barrier by showing that people from a country in Africa can compete in a winter sport. Second was to represent my country, Ghana, and to be able to inspire and motivate people there, especially the kids. And a third thing for me was to gain experience for the 2022 Olympics, and I feel like I accomplished that.
What is one of the main challenges that you experienced when trying to achieve your dream?
It’s a very special feeling to be able to compete for your birth country, especially a country that doesn’t have snow or traditionally doesn’t do winter sports. You know, the challenge obviously in competing for a country such as Ghana is funding. Funding is always a very tough thing in a winter sport. There are sports like soccer or track and field where it’s much cheaper to compete. Competing for Ghana, I had to pay for everything myself. You know, I had to pay for my own equipment, my training at a training camp, for transportation, for places to stay. I had to get my own coach and pay for that. I am grateful for the sponsors that believed in me and for the IOC Olympic solidarity scholarship I received about 4 months before the Olympic Games, the support from the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) and Ghana Olympic Committee. It’s tough to compete for an African country in a non-traditional sport. But, you know, you do it for love. You do it for the love of the sport and for the love of the game.
This one is a tough question, but did you ever feel discriminated against living in Netherlands, or now living in the US?
Really funny that you ask this because I just wrote a big column about my experience with racism. You know, I was never really raised with discrimination. My parents never taught me to look at the colour of people’s skin. I was never raised that way. Obviously, growing up, I have witnessed and experienced some forms of racism in different areas in the Netherlands as well as in the USA. But I try to always do my best so I can prove people wrong, even though maybe I shouldn’t be concerned with proving anything to anyone. I hope that there will be more love, tolerance, and understanding for humanity and for people to understand that the colour of your skin has nothing to do with the content of your character, as my parents have been teaching me. I’ve stayed silent for a long time. But I’m not going to be silent anymore but use my voice in a positive way to teach people about it or to let people know that racism still exists. And we all need to do better.
Even when it’s not about the Olympic Games, I still get a lot of interview requests. And I think it has to do with the positivity that I offer. My relentlessness and power are in being resilient, and I think that a lot of people can relate to that or learn from that.
How does it feel when you go back to Ghana? What is your happiest memory from there?
I love Ghana. People recognize me there. Even though I’m not a soccer player or a boxer, I’ve become a well-known person in Ghana since the 2018 Olympics. I hope that I can continue to inspire people to dare to dream, to come of their comfort zones and never give up. My happiest moment is really connected to my grandmother, Minka, who raised me. At the age of 8 years old, she told me that what you need for success is already in you and that it’s a matter of believing in yourself, having the will to work hard, and never give up.
That was an important message that has always stuck with me, especially doing doubtful and difficult times. When our parents weren’t in Ghana, she was raising me and my brother, along with eight other cousins. We slept on concrete floors, didn’t have much, but she always found a way to provide for us by selling her African cloth. You know, we didn’t have much, but we had each other. And I think it’s one of the fun memories I had with my family growing up in Ghana..
Now you are living in the US, how is life there different from your experiences in Ghana and the Netherlands?
I don’t think there’s a perfect world anywhere. You know, I think I’ve loved living everywhere I’ve lived – in Ghana, in the Netherlands, now in the US. You know, there are always people who will envy you, there will be jealousy and even hate. But, that’s part of life, even here in the USA.
If you are willing to work hard enough, you can accomplish so much. That’s something that I love about the American mind-set. Dreams come true if you work hard and if you’re putting in the work. Possibilities here are unlimited. However, we’re still dealing with racism. And, you know, rich and poor are really divided. So, a lot of work is still to be done.
What about missing home, missing the family . . . Does traveling ever make you feel lonely?
For sure I miss my family. I miss my wife Erica and my daughter Ashanti because I travel about six months out the year to a lot of competitions worldwide. But I’m also a guy with a goal, and I know what I’m going after, and I know that I must get it done. I try to cherish the moments with family and stay in touch with them through FaceTime, for example. I think that it’s doable right now. I’m not sure if I can do it forever. But, you know, for the next two, three years as an athlete, I need to stay focused to accomplish my goals as an
How do you manage a hectic athlete’s lifestyle? Do you have a secret?
The secret for me is to be able to organize myself better and to be able to plan better for each day and to be able to put some time aside, to spend time with family, to be able to get training done and not just waste my time.
Now in connection with COVID-19 the whole world is staying at home. How are you handling it?
This is a good question, because people often ask me if I’m bored during COVID-19. I’m not bored at all. If you have a toddler like my daughter Ashanti, who is only 3 years old, you stay pretty busy. I’m a family man, so I stay busy. But again, I have it in my schedule – I constantly try to help people, whether it’s involvement with charity work or sports.
When it comes to training, I’ve been doing about 80 percent of my training inside the house, and I try to go at least once or twice a week, running up hills in the forest or in the mountains. I keep the social distancing recommendation, obviously. I am washing hands, follow hygiene protocols and things like that. It’s definitely tough not to be able to go to the gym and lift. But, you know, you can get creative, and COVID-19 is not here to stop me.
You have the cutest daughter, Ashanti, who recently had a birthday. How was it – to spend her birthday in isolation?
It was a different birthday. You know that when she was 1 and 2, we had a little bit of a bigger party at our house with 30 to 50 people, friends and family. And this time we did it in a really small way with our in-laws and just us. But she felt the love. She had a cake. She got a bicycle from us. The thing is, I was born in Ghana, so I didn’t even have birthday parties.
Would you like Ashanti to be a professional athlete like yourself one day?
My wife Erica is a long jumper. We met in college, where I was a sprinter. After we married and were expecting Ashanti, people kept joking that our daughter will be athletic like us, but Erica and I always made a joke that she’s probably going to be nerdy with glasses; and that she will probably say: “Daddy, I want to play a violin.” But she is very athletic.
We want her to be happy, and that’s the truth. We are both athletes, and we know what it takes – the commitment, the dedication. Being an athlete is not always that easy and glorious. It’s not always fun. Sometimes you hardly make any money as an amateur athlete. If you can be an athlete and if you can take it far – great, but before that it doesn’t always pay the bills, and you usually must go through lots of injuries. We never forced Ashanti to do any kind of work-out because we noticed that it doesn’t work. It’s fun to see her grow up being happy and active. We want her to understand that being active is important for her health. And if she wants to do that professionally, so be it. Currently, we have introduced her to gymnastics and soccer. Let’s see where it takes us.
You have nearly a 100 thousand followers on Instagram. When I met you last time it was about 40 thousand. That’s a big growth and a lot of people. How do you handle your popularity?
I don’t consider myself a popular guy. That’s how people seem to view it. I’m good at self-promoting – that’s something I had to force myself to learn at a very young age. I have been a minority when it comes to a lot of different things. As an athlete from Ghana competing in the sport of skeleton, you have to learn how to promote yourself positively, to be able to get sponsorships. Our sport is too small to not get yourself out there. You have to share your story with those that are willing to listen. Yes, I do get a lot of media reach, but that’s also because I’m putting in the work to promote myself professionally.
When it comes to social media, it’s a really tough area, because the algorithm changes all the time. And after the Olympic Games, I hired a social media manager to help me with my social media engagement. It becomes a full-time job when you want to do it well. It did not always work out great, but it sure is easier to reach a lot of people during major moments such as; the Olympic Games, being in documentaries in three different countries, having constant media attention, writing blogs, doing global speaking engagement tours etc.
I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I’m an athlete. I like to be positive, be myself and share my story, take people on a journey online and offline. I don’t like to share negative things. I try not to talk only about my sports, but also share personal stories and pictures. People who are parents, people who are athletes, people who are upcoming professionals – my audience is wide, because people can resonate with different subjects on my social media pages.
What can you tell young people who look up to you? Any advice?
There’s so much to tell young people. I believe that it all starts with believing in yourself. There’s so much noise out there. Don’t listen to all of it, listen to yourself first.
I think that young people are so talented. And I think that they need to try everything as much as possible, not just one thing, in order to see what they are good at. I think it’s important to serve others as well, to teach other people and to help other people grow, because it helps you to grow. You never know who’s watching, who’s looking up to you. So many people are learning from us as well. It’s okay to fail and to get back up and to keep moving forward, to learn from your mistakes, to learn from others, and to surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. I hope that helps a little bit.
You seem to have accomplished so much already. What is your biggest goal in life now?
For me, right now, when it comes to sports, it’s training for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, where I hope to win Africa’s first ever Winter Olympic Games medal. I call that a goal of mine, the hope of a billion. It’s not going to be easy. But I’m improving a lot and work hard every single day.
Who would have ever thought that I would be able to win in a white-dominated sport? I want to become an example, an example of not having much but still reaching your dreams and goals. No matter who you are, if you want to accomplish something in life, it is possible if you’re willing to work for it. I believe that anyone out there, in Africa or elsewhere in the world, who wants to become a doctor or lawyer or a teacher or an Olympian, can do it.
Photos: From the personal Instagram of Akwasi Frimpong
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