Barely a handful of Pacific island nations have ever taken part in a Winter Olympic Games and none has ever won a medal but, come Beijing 2022, American Samoa might just be in contention.
- Nathan Crumpton has been ranked as high as number eight in the world
- American Samoa hasn’t been represented at the Winter Olympics since 1994
- Crumpton is helping develop the next generation of athletes in American Samoa
Nathan Crumpton is hoping to represent the US territory in the skeleton — the event where the athlete hurtles headfirst down an ice track on a toboggan at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour.
For eight years, Crumpton was part of Team USA. He went to major championships and ranked as high as eighth in the world and number one for his country, but internal disputes within the management of the sport in America persuaded him to leave the team and look elsewhere.
“There were two possibilities that I could pursue. One was Kenya, which is where I was born and I spent most of my childhood growing up in Africa,” he said.
“So I pursued that option first and even though I have a Kenyan birth certificate, that wasn’t enough for the authorities to grant me a passport and eligibility to compete.
“So the second option that I looked at was through my Polynesian family heritage, my grandmother on my mum’s side.
“I got in touch with the American Samoan National Olympic Committee and they were more than happy to welcome me into their ranks and I jumped at the opportunity.”
Surprisingly, American Samoa does have previous history of competing in the sliding sports as they are called, going back to the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics in Norway.
On that occasion, its two-man bobsled team placed 39 out of 42 starters, but the US territory has not been back to the games since, a situation Crumpton is keen to change.
“I can’t claim to be the first slider for American Samoa, but I am currently the only one and, from my perspective, it’s a great opportunity to expand the horizon of the winter sports,” he said.
“I think that fits the Olympic ethos, international community fraternity and using a sport as a means to bring the world together. And so if I can achieve that by representing a small group of Pacific islands, that’s a wonderful thing that I can do.”
‘I would like to think I’m a contender’
Crumpton is a serious contender, having finished 18th overall at the recent World Championships in Germany and, before that, winning gold medals for his new team in the North American championships.
They were the first gold medals American Samoa had ever won in a winter sport.
“I would like to think that I’m a contender for a medal in every race as I work my way up towards the higher levels of the sport, with the Olympics as the ultimate goal,” the 34-year-old said.
“That is the only level of competition that I have not competed in yet.
“During the last Olympic cycle, I suffered a terrible back injury during the qualification part of the season and was unable to compete in Pyeongchang, even though I did compete at a World Cup race there and I still hold the American start record on that track.
“As for the next Olympics in 2022 in Beijing, if things return to normal and the season occurs as planned, I’ll actually spend three weeks in China testing out the next Olympic track in 2021 in February and March, and then that should culminate with a World Cup race there as well.
“And so that’s part of the stepping stones to get to the games. We’ll see what happens — you got to stay healthy and got to train and gotta see if I can do it when it counts.”
Crumpton was a talented and versatile athlete when he was growing up, briefly ranking as the top high school triple jumper in the US.
Now he is doing his bit to help out with sport in American Samoa when he’s not competing, and he plans to become a regular visitor.
He is hoping to uncover some more winter sports talent, athletes who can follow his example in future years.
“I go back annually during my offseason to volunteer with the National Olympic Committee to help out with whatever I can do and essentially contribute back to the society that has been so willing to host me and so gracious in their welcome, ” he said.
“The way it usually works out is that for about six months of the year, I’m travelling and racing mostly in Europe since that’s where the sport of skeleton is based, but then during my off-season I get back for at least part of that time to hang out down in the islands.”
Crumpton’s bid has a hint of Cool Runnings
The skeleton is a high-energy sport that, to the spectator, looks pretty dangerous, so one may ask what persuaded Nathan Crumpton to take it on in the first place?
“It does look pretty wild. It’s a thrill. Like nothing else on this planet. Rollercoasters don’t hold a candle to it; skiing and snowboarding don’t do it justice,” he said.
“And it’s something that probably took about four or five years for me to really get accustomed to, and for everything to slow down cognitively in my mind so that I could process where I am on the track, how to execute a steer, what I needed to do in order to navigate the optimal line to the finish.”
The inevitable comparisons are going to be made with the Jamaican bobsled team and the movie Cool Runnings, which tells the story of another winter Olympic journey from an unlikely source.
But Crumpton is more than happy to embrace any Hollywood razzamatazz that might surround him if he makes it to Beijing and carries the American Samoan flag into the Olympic arena.
“I think that’d be great. Anything that I can do to support winter sports and to support the Polynesian people of the world, I think that’s a fantastic thing,” he said.
“And I don’t know if it will have the celebrity or the legendary Disney-type status that Cool Runnings has earned, but if there’s an element of that in the next Winter Olympics, should I be lucky enough to qualify, I think that would be great for the sport and for the islands as well.”
Back in American Samoa, there is plenty of local support for Crumpton’s Olympic mission, even though he concedes a lot of people are rather perplexed by the strange nature of his sport.
“I think there was also a little bit of incredulity as well — some people who were unfamiliar with the sport up until that point and then ended up watching it on TV or online were somewhat shocked.
“They were astounded that there’s actually a sport predicated on sliding headfirst down a chute of twisty ice. But by and large, the feedback that I’ve gotten is overwhelmingly positive.”