Saudi snowboarder faces uphill challenge to qualify for Beijing Olympics

Yousif Kurdi answered an open call from the newly established Saudi Winter Sports Federation to apply for a spot on the kingdom’s Olympic team. He has until mid-January to qualify

“There’s nothing special about me, I’m not an incredibly gifted athlete that was born for this sport; I am just a normal guy who applied for the Olympic team and got in.” Snowboarder Yousif Kurdi is self-effacing as he reflects on his unlikely journey that led him to become part of Saudi Arabia’s six-man squad vying for a place at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.

Earlier this year, Kurdi was living in Amsterdam, setting up his own business, when a friend sent him a link to a social media post in which the newly established Saudi Winter Sports Federation was making an open call to all nationals with skiing or snowboarding experience to apply for a spot on the kingdom’s Olympic team.

Like any good businessman would do, Kurdi added a 30-minute slot to his busy calendar that read, “Apply for the Winter Olympics”, and he put together an application with his CV and some video highlights from his days competing with UCLA’s snowboarding team, and sent them through.

The 28-year-old, born to a Saudi father and Mexican mother, grew up mostly in Lebanon, where he developed a passion for snowboarding and hit the slopes at Faraya any chance he got.

When he went to study at UCLA, he found out they had a snowboarding team and began competing in boardercross – or snowboard cross – but ultimately stopped after graduating in 2015.

After working in management consultancy at McKinsey and Company, Kurdi moved on to start his own business – a company that acquires real estate then redevelops it into private commercial kitchens that are optimised for food delivery and pick-up. “It’s kind of like a virtual food hall,” he explains.

After raising the necessary seed money and getting ready to get his business off the ground, the opportunity of becoming part of the Saudi Arabian Winter Olympics team fell into his lap and a few weeks after he applied, Kurdi received a note in May that he had been accepted.

By August, he was on a plane heading to Switzerland, where he spent nearly three months in an intensive training block up in the mountains. The Saudi team then travelled to Austria but shortly after the country went into lockdown and the ski resorts were closed. The team relocated to Cervinia, Italy, where Kurdi was speaking to The National ahead of his first competition, which takes place in Moninec, Czech Republic, this weekend.

“I never thought this would happen. It’s such a blessing. I’m 28 now; if 13-year-old Yousif would know that he’d be snowboarding professionally for the national team and being the CEO of my own company at 28, I’d say dream come true. So it really is a dream come true, this is super awesome,” he said last week.

Initially, the idea was that Saudi Arabia would receive wildcards into the Beijing Olympics as a first-time federation, but Kurdi soon found out there would be no invite in his discipline of boardercross.

If he plans on making history by becoming Saudi Arabia’s first Winter Olympian, he’ll have to do it the hard way, by accruing points through various levels of competitions in order to participate in a World Cup – the highest tier – where he would need to clinch a top-30 finish to punch his ticket to Beijing. All this needs to happen by mid-January.

The timeline sounds impossible and boardercross as a sport is one of the toughest to compete in or qualify for. But Kurdi is not focused on the obstacles and is instead relishing the experience and concentrating on the process rather than the outcome.

“Going through with it and finishing the season would be a huge success, because that means I was able to do this despite of all the challenges – Covid, my own business, just being in a totally new situation, the lack of time that I have,” said Kurdi.

“So actually persevering and by the end of this all, if by season-end I retire after that, I think it’d already be a huge success, and ultimately define success in the process, which I believe is a healthier way to define success.”

Saudi snowboarder Yousif Kurdi.

Boardercross is essentially a speed event that involves four to six competitors per heat, going through a course that has jumps, rolls, berms and lots more.

It requires an incredible amount of focus, mental and emotional resilience, physical strength as well as tactical awareness.

“From a mental standpoint, you’ve just got to be able to conquer your fears,” Kurdi explains. “Man, it’s crazy, these courses they get bigger, they get faster, you see people fall.

“I saw my teammate break his collarbone and get helicoptered off, and then I had to go down that same slope the next day. So mentally you have to be able to just face your fears. You also have to be resilient, because you have setbacks all the time.”

The teammate Kurdi refers to is Faisal Al Rasheed, who, thankfully, has recovered from injury and recently returned to train with them in Cervinia.

Along with Kurdi and Al Rasheed, the Saudi team also has two cross-country skiers, and two downhill skiers.

Kurdi says staying positive is a skill he works on daily as he tries to steer his thoughts away from anything that would drain his energy and distract him from the task at hand.

“You have to be able to reframe everything that happens into a positive thing, it’s a very, very intense sport, especially to be doing at this level. We’re trying to make up all the time that we’ve lost to sort of get to a position where we can compete at the Olympic level,” he added.

Besides the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, which constantly diverted their plans as a team, Kurdi says the most challenging part was figuring out a way to keep his business operating while he went to train in the mountains.

“The truth is that I was given an opportunity that I just couldn’t turn down,” he said.

“I couldn’t imagine me being on my deathbed and remembering that time I turned down an opportunity to be part of the national team for the Winter Olympics. It seems so difficult for me to say no to this.

“But at the same time I had just finished fundraising for my company and all these things we’re doing, it’s just for me another challenge of being an entrepreneur.

“I view this as any other challenge. Now I’m going to be part of the Olympic team, so I’m going to be out of office for 60-80 per cent of the time, how do I work around this? The solution involved a lot of hiring, proper time management, a lot of delegation, and it still does. Very challenging for sure, but absolutely doable if you surround yourself with the right team.”

During training, Kurdi’s alarm goes off daily at 5.45am and he gets a workout in before having breakfast. By 8am, he is up in the mountains, where he practices until 3pm, stopping for a snack halfway through. Back at their lodging, Kurdi goes through video analysis with the coach – the highly-experienced Sean McCarron – waxes his boards while having some work calls before getting in another workout ahead of dinner time. Some more work calls then he can finally go to bed, only to repeat it all a few hours later.

“It’s very, very intense,” he says.

He hopes this entire venture, from himself and his teammates, provides an inspirational message to young boys and girls in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

“Definitely a big reason why I’m doing this is that hopefully this is going to inspire young athletes, sort of to see what is possible for humans,” says Kurdi.

“Not just in Saudi but also globally. What hopefully we get to do, is to prove how much we can do as humans as long as we try, as long as we’re consistent, as long as we’re persevering.”

Kurdi says there is a lot of enthusiasm surrounding this push from the Saudi Winter Sports Federation, but he is unsure if the programme has longevity.

“With that said, I will be dedicating a significant amount of my own time to making sure that this programme has legs, not just for Saudis, but for athletes all around the world,” he said.

This experience has driven Kurdi to identify certain problems facing many countries that are underrepresented at the Olympic Games.

He wishes to set up “an organisation with the mission to democratise access to the Olympics”.

But first, he will hit the slopes in Moninec on Friday, where his qualification dream officially begins.

“I’m ready,” he says confidently.

“I think the nervousness comes from a lot of expectations or trying to figure out where you’re going to be. I just take it one day at a time, I take it one second at a time. I’m going to go to the track, give it my all and then see what my time is and then try to do better. Just take it easy.”

Updated: December 12th 2021, 5:37 PM