Eritrean athlete from Alberta 'really happy' to be an Olympian

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda, 21, was born in Calgary but represented his parents' home country of Eritrea, which they fled due to war.

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda said carrying the Eritrean flag was an emotional moment

Flag bearer Shannon-Ogbani Abeda of Eritrea leads the team during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, as his family watched from the stands. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Eritrea's first Winter Olympian competed this week with his family from Alberta cheering from the stands and fans rooting for him around the world.

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda, 21, was born in Fort McMurray, Alta., and raised in Calgary by parents who fled their tiny home country of Eritrea as refugees in the 1980s.

He was thinking of them during his alpine skiing events in this week at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"It means a lot, especially for my dad. He sacrificed a lot to make his way to Canada, and in the war of independence, he lost a lot of relatives," Abeda told the Calgary Eyeopener by phone from South Korea on Friday morning.

"When I raised that flag for him, it was a very emotional time for him."

The country, which is home to about five million people, spent almost 30 years torn in the Eritrean War for Independence. The country gained internationally recognized independence in 1993.

Abeda's parents fled the war and made a life in Alberta, raising their children near the Rocky Mountains.

Born and raised in Alberta to immigrant parents from the East-African nation, skier Shannon-Ogbani Abeda's winter Olympic drams are coming true. (Shannon-Ogbani Abeda)

As a result, he grew up on the ski hill.

On Saturday, Abeda came 61st with a time of 2:39.87 in the alpine skiing event giant slalom, which involves zig-zag skiing through poles or gates.

On Thursday, he failed to complete his slalom event after suffering hip and back pain.

"I made a little bit of an error but I was really happy that I crossed the finish line and officially be an Olympian," Abeda said.

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda shares a hug after failing to finish his slalom event on Thursday in South Korea. He's been receiving messages of support from Eritreans around the world. ( Shannon Abeda/Facebook)

Abeda's story has sparked interest from news agencies around the world, garnering attention that has been "a little bit overwhelming," he said. The many messages of support from Eritreans worldwide have made it all worthwhile.

"A lot of Eritreans have been very happy that I've been able to open that door for youth and raise a flag for them," Abeda said. 

"Regardless of if it's alpine skiing or skeleton or bobsled — even skating, I hope that someone else can carry the torch."

Inspiring youth

His interest in promoting winter sports for young Eritreans started in 2011 when he had the chance to compete under his second nationality for the Youth Olympic Games.

He tried for the 2014 Sochi Games but was prevented from qualifying by a knee injury.

Eritrean-Canadian skier has qualified for 2018 Winter Olympic Games (Shannon-Ogbani Abeda)

He qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea in alpine skiing under the "basic quota rule." Every National Olympic Committee may enter one female and one male qualifying competitor, provided they meet a few competition requirements. 

Until now, Eritrea only had athletes compete in the Summer Olympics, mostly in distance running and cycling.

"I'm still trying to grasp that feeling that I actually am an Olympian — and after it took me this long to get here," Abeda said. "I can't really put into words how I feel."

After the Olympics, he will return to Alberta to continue his computer science degree at the University of Calgary.

Whether he aims to compete in the next Winter Games will depend on his schooling, he said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.