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Winter Olympian

February 05, 2014

Skiing and holding the flag

The 2014 Winter Olympics mark an important milestone for Thailand: The tropical Asian country will send just its second- and third-ever Winter Olympians to the games. It’s been eight years since the last appearance by the nation’s first Winter Olympian: Drexel computer engineering professor Prawat Nagvajara.

Nagvajara went down in history as the country’s first — and, until now, only — Winter Games representative when he competed in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, all while working at Drexel.

Nagvajara, who grew up in Thailand and didn’t see snow until his freshman year at Northeastern University, participated in the Salt Lake City and Torino games as a cross-country skier. He finished 68th out of 71 competitors in the 1.5-kilometer sprint (after being lapped and eliminated in the 30-kilometer freestyle) in 2002 and came in last, 97th place, in the 15-kilometer classical in 2006, so it’s safe to say he isn’t that remembered for his scores.

Rather, his passion and determination have turned his underdog story into a victory. He was one of 11 one-person Olympic squads in 2002 and one of 18 one-person delegations in 2006. When he competed in his second Olympics at age 47, he was the oldest competitor in an endurance sport. Plus, he was the latest in a line of Winter Olympians from warm weather climates who have received attention, including the 1988 Jamaican national bobsledding team that inspired the movie “Cool Runnings,” even though no Winter Olympic medals have ever been won by a tropical nation.

Nagvajara has been included in lists commemorating “no-shot Winter legends,” “Unexpected Olympians,” “Misfits of the Olympics” and “no-hopers.” While profiling him, the New York Times described the associate professor as “an anomaly, if not the ultimate underdog symbol of the Olympic spirit.”

That’s why Paul Bragiel, an American venture capitalist, asked Nagvajara for advice when he decided to take up cross-country skiing — an Olympic sport with special rules to include less-elite athletes from underrepresented countries. He paired with Colombia, which had never sent a Winter Olympian before, and was aiming to compete at the Olympics, not score highly in Sochi. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nagvajara encouraged Bragiel, who ultimately didn’t qualify, with the advice that “To finish is more than an accomplishment."

Despite the international attention he’s received, Nagvajara hasn’t let fame get to his head.

“Two Olympics is more than enough for me. You’re lucky enough,” he said. “To be able to rub shoulders with the professionals twice is more than enough, I guess.”

No other Thai athlete has returned to the Winter Olympics since Nagvajara’s final trip. While Thailand has medaled in every summer Olympics since 1988 — usually in boxing, weightlifting or Taekwondo — Nagvajara says the country does not pay as much attention to the Winter Olympics.

“My two brothers didn’t know about the Winter Olympics. They didn’t know that there were two different games,” he said.

Indeed, Nagvajara says that even the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan — the last Winter Olympics held in Asia — didn’t gain a lot of viewers in Thailand. He watched those games, though, and his life changed because of it.

Nagvajara paid close attention to Kenyan cross-country skier Philip Boit, another warm-weather athlete who was the first to represent his country in the Winter Olympics. In a memorable moment of international sportsmanship, Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie delayed accepting his sixth gold medal (an Olympic record) at the awards ceremony to encourage and embrace Boit, the last skier, at the finish line. Boit was so moved that he named his first son Daehlie after him.

Nagvajara was inspired too. In 2000, he applied to the International Ski Federation to begin his qualification. In October 2001, his aunt in Thailand personally wrote to the secretary general of the Olympic Committee of Thailand appealing for sponsorship and support. Even with the connection, he still had to persuade the committee that he was serious. And after he finished the mandatory five sanctioned races to represent Thailand, he still had to find his own coach and paid most of his expenses out of pocket for both games.

“I was lucky because I already had a job, money saved and all that,” he said.

He only started training with his Bulgarian coach, who he met in Vermont, three months before the games. He didn’t even have any sponsors.

His dwellings in the Olympic Villages were free, and he had plenty of space as his country’s sole flag-bearer. In Salt Lake City, his wife and two sons stayed with a host family in an Olympic program to pair athletes’ families with nearby American homes. For Torino, they had to rent an apartment — and his family spent over $10,000 of its own money to fund the trip.

“We saved up for Torino instead of vacations,” he said. “It’s two years you don’t go on vacation so you can go to the Olympics.”

While he was “on vacation,” Nagvajara seemed to make new friends everywhere he went. A former cross-country skier from the United States helped him get a deal on his uniform. Volunteers who were assigned to help him also scored discounts for the clothing and the jacket he wore during the flag-carrying ceremony. The members of the Bulgarian squad waxed his skis in support of his coach. He struck up a friendship with a competitor from the Czech Republic who thought it was great that Nagvajara was an engineering professor. He still keeps in contact with the Utah family his wife and sons stayed with 12 years ago. Overall, his fellow cross-country skiers and athletes appreciated his passion and were incredibly nice to him.

Now that his dream of seeing a true Thai Winter Olympic team has come true, Nagvajara hopes the two Thai Olympians experience that same sense of international camaraderie, even if he hasn’t gotten to personally encourage them yet. Nagjavara plans on watching the Olympics this year, especially the men’s and women’s slalom skiing competitions, in which the two Thai athletes will be competing.

He won’t be the only one watching. Once again, Thailand is making headlines in the Winter Olympics because its sole female athlete, Vanessa Mae, is already famous and successful in the showbiz world. The Singaporean-Thai-British violin prodigy, who has sold over 10 million albums, secured a last-minute bid to represent her father’s native country in the women’s slalom. The other Thai athlete is Kanet Sucharitakul, a French-based student competing in the men’s giant slalom and slalom.

Though it became too expensive to internationally compete, Nagvajara still participates in citizen races with skiing friends, as he did even before he competed in the Olympics. The recent amount of snow in Philadelphia means he’s been going out a lot, usually after he finishes teaching at Drexel, where not too many people know there’s an Olympian on campus. He’ll usually go to South Ardmore Park in Wynnewood, Pa., even though it’s not the most suitable area for cross-country skiing.

He doesn’t care. As long as he’s skiing, he’s fine. He’s used to making things work.

“I make my own trail,” he said.