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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 11:05 GMT

Beach boy takes to the slopes

BBC Sport Online's Alex Gubbay meets the most unlikely winter Olympian in Salt Lake City

Think of Fiji, and it is coconut trees in scorching sunshine, not snow-capped glaciers that come to mind.

But believe it or not, the tropical island has entered its first ever winter Olympic athlete at these Games.

He is Laurence Thoms, born in Suva to a Fijian mother and a father from New Zealand, and he will compete in the slalom and giant slalom ski races here.

"It's great when I can wind the others up and say: 'You just got beaten by a Fijian in that race, mate'"
Fijian skier Laurence Thoms

Thoms responded to an advert in a local newspaper asking for young Fijians to apply for a prospective ski team - but which only wanted applicants who weren't afraid of the cold!

He insists that was no problem for him, even
when confronted by temperatures of -25F on arriving in Salt Lake City.

"In temperatures of 20C or below, people in Fiji are wrapped up in jerseys and jackets, but I'm out in a T-shirt and shorts!"

"I did use to snowboard, but got turned down for an instructor's course, and that was when I turned to skiing, and that advert.

"My first ever race was in January 2000, and I now split my training between New Zealand and Engelberg in Switzerland."

So Thoms has been skiing properly for just over two years - something of a disadvantage when compared with the vastly experienced Europeans.

Ambassador

"Yeah I guess so, but as the underdog, not much is expected of me and it's great when I can wind the others up and say: 'You just got beaten by a Fijian in that race, mate'.

"I'm aiming for a personal best here, which will hopefully show people that I really can ski."

Phil Taylor is chef de mission for Fiji, which in practical terms, means promoting and explaining his skier's presence in Salt Lake City.

"We're very happy with his progress and that he is the first South Pacific Islander to qualify in his own right for the Olympic Winter Games.

"I feel he is developing into a very good ambassador for the sport and for Fiji."

Thoms had the honour of carrying the Fiji flag in the opening ceremony - and it was one he relished.

"It was quite something walking out there, waving to everyone who was cheering madly. It was a real rush and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

"In fact, getting here has relaxed me a lot. I've known for eight or nine months I would be here, and guess I was a bit nervous - but now I am just so proud to be one of the athletes here."

Rightly so, too. He will not win a medal, or provide any shocks, but the Olympics are all about bringing different cultures and identities together.

And there is nothing more different than a beach boy battling against icy bumps in the mountains.

When he pushes off from the start gate, in what he promises will be a distinctive white ski top, Laurence Thoms will absolutely deserve his place in the snow.


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