Latin American Athletes Press on for a 1st Medal at the Winter Olympics

"It's a great opportunity to show the world that the ticos are capable of reaching a worldwide level in whichever sport," said skier Andre Hamm, using a term for residents of Costa Rica

No athlete from a Latin American country has ever managed to win an Olympic medal in winter, but plenty of hopefuls are undeterred, with some training in the United States as they look to qualify for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

Costa Rica has been absent from the Winter Olympics for over a decade and its only hope for breaking that streak at the upcoming Olympics is Andre Hamm, a 22-year-old slopestyle skier who is the only athlete the Costa Rican Olympic Committee has backed in qualifications, which will finish this January.

Hamm was 11 years old when Costa Rica last sent a "tico," as the country's residents are affectionately known, to the Winter Olympics.

"I feel very proud to be the only Costa Rican athlete interested in qualifying for the Winter Olympics," Hamm said. "It's a great opportunity to show the world that the ticos are capable of reaching a worldwide level in whichever sport."

Like most Latin American countries, Costa Rica is hot, dry and tropical. Snow is rare, so it stands to reason that there are few athletes who end up contending for medals at the Winter Games. The ones who do often train in the U.S., Hamm included.

He likes to document it on his Instagram, posting from places like Mt. Hood, Oregon, and Winter Park, Colorado, where he flips through the air and grinds rails.

Slopestyle skiers race down courses full of obstacles, pulling off jumps and tricks that get judged based on height, number of turns, technique and difficulty.

This March, Hamm came in 49th place with 15.80 points at the World Ski Championships in Spain. Last year at the South American Cup in Argentina, Hamm came first with a score of 50.00 points.

If Hamm attends the Olympics, he'll face stiff competition. There will be up to 282 freestyle skiers competing this year, including 30 men in slopestyle.

Hamm, who is Costa Rican and American, started skiing when he was about 4 years old and has done slopestyle for more than eight years. Hamm practices with a club called Team Park City United in Park City, Utah, where American coaches train him — there aren't many Costa Ricans experienced in skiing.

"In my opinion, the reason there aren't a lot of Latinos in the Winter Olympics is because we have no access to these sports in Latin America," Hamm said. "For the most part, to participate in the Winter Olympics you need to be located near cold temperatures and near mountains, a combination that is not common in Latin America."

The Costa Rican Olympic Committee does not offer a development program for freestyle skiing since the country has no federation that focuses on the sport. In fact, it has no development programs for any winter sport, the committee said.

If an athlete shows interest in winter sports, the committee pays and signs a license that allows the athlete to compete nationally and internationally as a Costa Rican. Once they reach a high competitive level, the committee provides the athlete with a scholarship that allows him or her to train in the U.S.

"Slopestyle is very expensive to participate in and it would have been very difficult to get where I am at the moment without their help," said Hamm, who added that the scholarship covers expenses for training, trips and ski equipment.

Hamm is, of course, not the only Latin American athlete to show interest in the Winter Games, dreaming of being their country's first Winter Olympic medalist.

Yanet Lucumi, a former professional runner who is now an instructor at the Colombian Olympic Committee, said her country sends its athletes to prepare for the Olympics in the U.S., too.

"We want to make sure we have athletes wanting to participate in the Winter Olympics by trying our best to motivate them," Lucumi said.

The last time Colombia attended the Winter Olympics was in 2010 at the Vancouver Games, when Cynthia Denzler competed for the country in Alpine skiing. For the 2018 Games, the Colombian Olympic Committee is anticipating that its athletes will qualify in several sports.

Bolivia will return to the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1992 at Albertville, France. The nation has never had an Olympic medalist, in winter or summer.

"It's very important for us to have an athlete representing Bolivia at the international level at the Winter Olympics," said Dr. Marco Antonio Arze Mendoza, president of the Bolivian Olympic Committee.

The committee said that Alpine skier Simon Breitfuss Kammerlander will represent Bolivia at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Mendoza added that the Bolivian Olympic Committee would continue to support more Bolivian athletes' who would like to participate in the Winter Olympics.

Argentina has had more success in the Winter Games, with six women and one man representing the nation at Sochi in 2014. The country will have nine men and six women competing to qualify for Pyeongchang in sports like skiing, snowboarding and luge, said Mariano Rodriguez Giesso, president of the Commission of Winter Sports for the Argentine Olympic Committee.

As for Costa Rica, its Olympic committee noted Hamm's interest in going to the Olympics and will be working on creating a program in the next two years that will encourage more Costa Rican athletes to participate, said Marc Farcai, coordinator of Olympic Solidarity for Costa Rica.

"We are very happy with Andre because he is a very mature athlete for his age," Farcai said.

Hamm lost the opportunity to participate in this year's World Cup, losing many days of practice on top of that, due to a concussion he received this June while training on Mt. Hood, but that won't stop him from attending qualifications for Pyeongchang.

"There is a chance that this can affect me in the qualifications," Hamm said. "But this has been my dream for many years and I will do everything I can to represent Costa Rica in future World Cups and in the 2018 Winter Olympics."

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