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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Attempting to inspire a six-man squad from Saudi Arabia to next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing after less than a year of training is ostensibly an unachievable quest. Yousif Kurdi, captain of Saudi Arabia’s first Winter Olympics squad, is also in the process of setting up his own business while undergoing eight hours of intense snowboarding training a day.
When you add in his near-death experience after a horrifying accident last month — and the fact that Kurdi has only one chance to fulfill his ambition tomorrow — then you have the epitome of an “impossible dream.”
Yet the US-born 28-year-old, who is flying the flag for his father’s native land as a snowboarder, has embraced his Herculean challenge with gusto.
“For me, what’s so inspiring about this is the fact that Saudi Arabia is a desert country, without the opportunities and options to be on snow,” he told Arab News of the incredible odyssey that began only last May when the Saudi Winter Sports Federation was formed. “But we are defying the odds in every single way.”
Kurdi is aiming for a top-three finish in his last chance of Olympic qualification in a race at Baqueira-Beret, near Barcelona in Spain, on Sunday.
But even if he achieves this, he says he would need an unlikely wildcard from Olympic chiefs on account of a pandemic-ravaged season and Saudi Arabia’s status as a fledgling winter sports body.
Whatever happens, Kurdi is simply grateful to be alive and able to participate in such a life-affirming and inspirational adventure for Saudi Arabia.
He is bidding to compete in boardercross, which involves four to six competitors per heat hurtling down a winding, undulating course that includes jumps.
“Boardercross is arguably the scariest of all the snowboarding events with the highest injury rate,” Kurdi said.
He can testify to this from a terrifying personal experience, which severely hampered his Olympic dream and could have cost him his life.
Kurdi had been training for four “super-intense” months when, the day before his first competition of a four-race series in Moninec, Czech Republic, a practice run ended disastrously.
Attempting a trick on a boardercross feature at high speed, Kurdi lost his alignment.
“My snowboard flew up, almost to the point where my body was parallel to the floor,” he said.
“I went down really hard on the back of my ankle and my face slammed into the snow. I was unconscious for a minute. Then I remember this warm feeling and someone rubbing my back. I heard my coach saying, ‘Yousif! Yousif! You’ve had a concussion. Just breathe.’
“Then I opened up my eyes, and it was like almost waking up from a dream, kind of foggy in the beginning and blurry. All of a sudden, I thought, ‘I’m alive, I’m alive.’”
Mercifully, X-rays and a CT scan showed no lasting damage, and Kurdi was discharged from the hospital the next day.
“It was super frustrating as I had been training for these four events all season, and I was absolutely ready. I was feeling great and that training day, I was actually doing fantastically, but life is the way it is. You can’t change it.”
Kurdi believes miscommunication with his coach partly contributed to his accident. He subsequently hired a replacement in Romanian snowboarding guru Kinda Geza, whom he met by chance in a sauna in the wake of his accident.
Revitalized under his new mentor, Kurdi returned to the snow with renewed vigor and a remarkably philosophical acceptance of fear.
“I think the near-death experience is the greatest thing to have ever happened to me. The appreciation I have for life is so great now. I have accepted that there’s so much out of my own control.
“I still was afraid a few times after my injury, for example when I was running my bike in Amsterdam. For some reason, I could visualize myself falling and getting really hurt. It also happened a couple of times when I saw a car approaching and experienced a fight or flight instinct.
“But now I am back on the snow, and I am with Geza. He’s the real deal, and we connect on a human level.”
Kurdi has also forged strong relationships with his fellow Saudi Olympic hopefuls and members of the SWSF, describing them as being “like one big family.”
Kurdi says two downhill skiers on the Saudi team, Fayik Abdi and Salman Al-Howaish, have already accrued enough qualification points for Beijing 2022 — although only the highest scorer of the two will eventually compete.
Another snowboarder, Faisal Al-Rasheed, and two cross-country skiers, Talal Al-Akeel and Rakan Alireza, make up the Kingdom’s contingent.
Of the squad’s camaraderie, Kurdi said: “Ahmed Shaher Al-Tabbaa, president of the federation, Rabab Mahassen, the vice president, and myself — we’ve been like the Three Musketeers. We always want to solve problems, always want to do things more efficiently, and are always trying to help other athletes whenever we can.
“I have so much respect for people who try to do things differently and go against the grain. They obviously made all of this possible, which has been life-changing for me, and I’m so happy that this program is going to be successful and the Saudi flag is going to be there in Beijing.”
The journey to Beijing began when he responded to an SWSF social media post inviting nationals with skiing or snowboarding experience to apply for a place on the Kingdom’s Olympic team.
The Amsterdam-based entrepreneur fancied a new challenge and duly applied by submitting video footage of his days competing with UCLA’s boardercross team.
Kurdi, born to a Saudi father and Mexican mother in Florida, grew up mostly in Lebanon, where he developed a passion for snowboarding.
But he stopped competing after graduating in 2015, so it was a significant leap of faith from the SWSF to select him.
“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” Kurdi recalled of the stunning moment he learned he had been successful. “When I first broke the news to my father Ibrahim, he was extremely happy.”
But Kurdi’s father, an extremely successful businessman, was also concerned about how his son would fit in snowboard training with his work commitments.
A former McKinsey consultant, Kurdi has started a new venture in YourKitchen, a company that acquires real estate and transforms it into private commercial kitchens that are tailor-made for food delivery and collection.
“This has been really one of my biggest challenges as an athlete and as an entrepreneur. How do I split my time in such a way so I can be the most productive in all the things I am doing, whether in sports or business?
“We are reinventing restaurant real estate; it’s kind of like a food hall,” he added, stressing that he plans to donate much of the millions he expects to make to philanthropic causes.
For now, however, he is fully focused on the richness of the trailblazing journey he and his fellow aspirants have navigated.
What would it mean for him to represent Saudi Arabia at the global extravaganza, which takes place Feb. 4-20?
“It has never been about me,” he replied. “This has been about a journey of outsiders persevering through challenges, overcoming difficulties and doing the impossible, which we have already done. Saudi Arabia has already qualified and will be waving the flag at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“That’s mission accomplished for me and has been my dream since I became the captain of the team.”
The intrepid Kurdi also harbors another Olympic ambition.
He plans to set up an organization that would “democratize access to the Olympics and drive much higher participation from under-represented countries.”
In Kurdi’s universe, the word “impossible” does not figure.
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