Saudi skier shrugs off pressure of historic Beijing Winter Olympics

LONDON: Fayik Abdi could be forgiven for basking in the glory of becoming a Saudi Arabian national hero.

The giant slalom skier has achieved the unthinkable by qualifying for the Beijing Winter Olympics after only seven months’ training and during a global pandemic.

He is the first and only Saudi to have achieved this gargantuan feat, but the self-deprecating Abdi is eager to avoid the limelight.

“I don’t want this to be about me,” Abdi told Arab News ahead of the Games, which take place on Feb 4-20. “I don’t want the attention, I don’t want the spotlight.

“I want this to be about Saudi. I want this to be about other Saudis and I want to inspire them to find a passion, to do new things and tell them that anything is possible and nothing is impossible.”

Abdi’s tale of the unexpected began when the newly formed Saudi Winter Sports Federation offered him the chance of a lifetime last March.

The SWSF harbored a seemingly fanciful ambition of sending Saudi sports talent to the Winter Olympics and duly helped Abdi to fund top coaches, a training program and his travel to competitions.

The 24-year-old is no skiing rookie, though, having dedicated his life to the sport since taking it up at the age of four.

As such, he has great confidence in his ability and an innate cool-headedness.

“I’m going to stay relaxed,” he said ahead of his race on Feb. 13. “The only thing I’m nervous about is catching COVID at the Olympics or right before it, but I’m not as nervous (about anything else) as you might imagine.

“That’s kind of my personality.”

So how did a man from a desert nation become so captivated by skiing?

“My mother was a recreational skier and she taught me how to ski in Lebanon. Ever since then, I fell in love with the sport and have been trying to pursue it,” said Abdi, who was born in San Diego, California, to two Saudi parents, but who grew up in the Kingdom between the ages of three and 14.

“When I turned 14, I went to boarding school in Florida and wanted to be a professional football player. But to be honest, I kept getting injured playing football.

“I kind of had to give it up and said to myself: ‘I wanna go somewhere where I can ski.’ I felt like that was my calling.

“I went to the University of Utah in 2016. I studied criminal justice. If you ask ‘why?’, it’s because I wanted to study something relatively easy so I could ski,” he said, laughing.

“While at university, I also worked as a ski technician tuning skis and took online classes and basically skied for 120-plus days every season. I wasn’t racing, I was just free riding. It was the best time of my life because I was doing what I loved.

“When I ski, I don’t worry about anything. I’m only thinking about skiing and being in the present moment.”

After graduating in December 2020, he returned to Saudi and started a project aimed at bringing sand-skiing to the Kingdom.

While doing this, he responded to an advert looking for Saudi skiers to film a photoshoot at NEOM, the new net-zero megacity on the Kingdom’s northwest Red Sea coast.

The SWSF’s CEO, Sultan Salama, had heard of Abdi’s skiing prowess and asked him to meet him and his colleagues in Riyadh.

“They asked me if I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Abdi said. “I didn’t know if they were for real. I was like: ‘Well, the Olympics is in 11 months and I’ve never trained for anything like that.’

“They asked me to look for a training program and a coach and I found someone, Jeff Books, a Canadian guy (and experienced skiing director).”

After starting training in Austria last August, Abdi and his team trained and competed in countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Montenegro and Italy.

But his arduous regime was made even harder by COVID-19’s disruptive impact.

“It’s been really challenging because we haven’t been able to go to races we wanted to go to because of cancellations, and we haven’t been able to train at venues.

“It’s just a challenge that adds to the journey, and I think it makes (my qualification) even more sweet.”

Books and his fellow coaches had understandably felt Abdi’s Olympic qualification hopes were “extremely difficult to the point of impossible.”

“They’re even surprised about where we’re at right now,” Abdi said. “They’re completely mind-blown, to be completely honest.”

Abdi competed in “about 11 races” in Europe and explains the Olympic qualification criteria thus: “You need to have five results to average below 160 points. So basically add your best five results, divide that by five and that’s your average. 

“The best skier in the world has zero points and our objective was to average below 160 points, and if you do this you have qualified, basically. I have 131 points.”

Explaining his grand slalom discipline, he said: “In alpine skiing, you have four disciplines — slalom, giant slalom or GS, super-G and downhill. Slalom is the slowest one as in speed, GS is second, super-G is third and downhill is the fastest.

“In GS, you have gates that are set around 25-32ish meters apart and you race through the course to the finish twice. Whoever has the best time in the two runs basically wins the race.”

Two of Abdi’s teammates, Rakan Alireza and Salman Al-Houwaish, also secured the points that they needed to qualify for Beijing 2022, but have agonizingly missed out on selection.

Abdi said Alireza, a cross-country skier, needed to have participated in a World Championship to qualify.

Al-Houwaish, meanwhile, was pipped by Abdi on account of his inferior world ranking of 3,722 as opposed to Abdi’s 3,512.

“It’s been really tough for Salman and I for the past two or three weeks,” Abdi said. “When we first started this project, we were told we would both be able to go if we both qualified. Once we both qualified, we found out that only one of us could go and that changed the whole scenario.

“This is life and this is sports and sometimes it’s like cruel like that.

“I feel for him and consider him (to be) like a brother. I know he’s going to do great things in the ski industry and in life.”

Abdi is flying the flag for Saudi alone in Beijing. Undaunted, he insists he is not there to make up the numbers or to revel in the “glamor” of the occasion.

He cites Wayne Rooney as his greatest inspiration, given the legendary ex-Manchester United and England footballer’s “competitive tenacity,” and hopes to display such a quality in China.

“My goal is just like every race: Just to try and ski the best you can. A race is just skiing and I think that’s what a lot of racers forget sometimes; they try and do something different in a race to what they do in training.

“I want to beat as many nations as I can. I’m going to be competitive.

“This is a long-term journey for me. I’m not just doing this to get to the Olympics. I want the next Olympics and then the next one.”

Whatever happens next in his incredible skiing odyssey, Abdi said that he owes everything to the SWSF.

“They’re legends in my opinion. They really shot for the stars and it’s amazing that they had the trust to send us out there with seven months of training and hope we would qualify for the Olympics. I give them so much credit for trusting us, for supporting us, and really just their ambition is truly remarkable.”

Abdi himself is truly remarkable and it is touching to learn that he wants to leave a lasting legacy when he hangs up his skis.

“Honestly, my biggest dream and accomplishment would be to breed a major male or female skier and have them become World Cup skiers who are constantly on the circuit winning races and putting Saudi Arabia on the map.”