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A rather unusual turn of events has seen a Bolivian skier compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics under the guidance of an ordained Lutheran priest. Nicknamed ‘El Lobo’ (‘The Wolf’), Simon Breitfuss Kammerlander may not have brought home a medal, but he did manage to make his country proud upon being declared the ‘The Latin American Alpine Skiing King’.
Those familiar with the landlocked South American nation of Bolivia might question how a skier made it to the Olympics in the first place – after all, despite boasting a dazzling array of snow-capped Andean peaks, the country doesn’t actually have any ski resorts. There is one former ski field known as Chacaltaya near the administrative capital of La Paz – it was once the world’s highest, but eventually melted away in 2009 due to the onset of climate change.
How Kammerlander, a dual Austrian and Bolivian national, came to join the Bolivian ski team is an oddity in of itself. During a vibrant street parade in La Paz when he was just 17, the budding professional skier was invited by some newfound friends to join the country’s national squad. Either due to the effects of one too many Paceñas (local beers), or perhaps spotting a relatively easy path into the Olympics, Kammerlander readily accepted and has been an honorary member ever since.
Yet just becoming a member of the national ski team does not facilitate access to the Olympics, as one must first become a citizen of the relevant country as well. Thankfully for Kammerlander, the largely impoverished nation of Bolivia has relatively lax immigration laws, meaning becoming a resident was an achievable task. Some years later, after a long and drawn out battle with bureaucracy, Kammerlander was naturalized as a Bolivian citizen just in time to represent his new country in the 2018 Olympics.
Unfortunately, disaster struck in the days leading up to the big event.
“Just before he was due to fly out with me, my dad slipped while clearing snow from the roof at home in Austria,” Kammerlander told Channel News Asia. “He crashed three meters to the ground and broke five ribs – it meant he couldn’t come.”
Desperate for his son to be accompanied on the monumental occasion, his dad sought help in the most unlikely of places. Lutheran priest and Olympic attendee Father Joerg Walcher agreed to take Kammerlander under his wing, providing some much needed moral support and technical guidance in between holding religious services for the prestigious event.
“Now I’m also part of the Bolivian delegation – up at the slopes early in the morning, doing course inspections, video analysis and just generally helping out any way I can,” said Walcher. “Simon comes to my services, too, so we help each other out”.
Unfortunately, the holy intervention was not enough to bring home a medal for Bolivia, with Kammerlander ranking 43rd of 75 competitors in the giant slalom event. Nevertheless, his efforts didn’t go unnoticed because he was recognized as the best Latin American skier in the competition, much to the fanfare of his loyal Bolivian supporters.
While not hanging out with his chums in La Paz, Kammerlander traverses the European ski circuit in a motorhome driven by his dad. Next stop is Beijing 2022, with some intensive training alongside his father on way.
Here’s hoping the old fella makes a speedy recovery.