Calgary skier headed to Winter Olympics... but not with Team Canada

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda was born in Fort McMurray. He's only visited his parent's home country twice. But in February 2018, he'll buckle up his ski boots to compete as Eritrea's first Winter Olympic athlete.

Quota rule for alpine skiers will allow athlete to realise his Olympic dream for Eritrea

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

Shannon-Ogbani Abeda was born in Fort McMurray, Alta.

He's only visited his parents' home country — the tiny nation of Eritrea, in northeastern Africa — twice.

But in February 2018, he'll buckle up his ski boots to compete as Eritrea's first-ever Winter Olympic athlete in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The 21-year-old skier scored results of 26th, 42nd, and one non-finish in his last three races ranked by the International Ski Federation (FIS).

However, thanks to a quota rule for alpine skiers at the Winter Olympics, Abeda can bypass the requirement that athletes must be ranked among the top 500 in the world to compete and instead qualify based on meeting a minimum point threshold for the slalom and giant slalom events.

"It's hard for me to grasp that I'll be up against some competitors that I looked up to as a young kid," Abeda told the Calgary Homestretch.

"I want to go in and rank myself up against those people and do my best. My main goal is to put Eritrea on the map."

Avoiding the 'Eddie 'The Eagle' Rule'

The rule that would usually close off the field to all but the top competitors is known colloquially as the "Eddie 'The Eagle' Rule," named after the beloved, but clumsy skier who competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics as he was the only U.K. ski jumper who applied.

Abeda is no slouch (sorry Eddie) — he still had to obtain the minimum ranking to meet the Olympic standard — but the quota allows Eritrea's National Olympic Committee to make their Winter Olympic debut.

If he chose to compete as a Canadian, Abeda would be up against a much tougher slate of athletes and likely wouldn't qualify. Instead, he signed on with Eritrea's National Olympic Committee before competing for the African nation in the 2012 Youth Olympic Games.

What country to compete for?

Choosing what country's team to compete for is surprisingly not an uncommon problem for athletes. 

Alberta soccer prodigy Alphonso Davies made his debut with the Canadian national men's soccer team last year, but he also could have chosen to play for Ghana — the country of his birth.

Once an athlete has competed on a national level for a country, they have to wait a few years before switching allegiances — so unfortunately for Canada but luckily for Eritrea, Abeda has chosen his lot for now.

The Calgary-based computer science student said he's excited to bring a sport he's done since he was three-years-old to a country where the temperature hovers around 30 C — not exactly similar weather to what he experiences while training at Sunshine, Nakiska and Panorama.

"There were a lot of people shocked that I'd be representing Eritrea in a winter sport, and some of them have never seen snow in their lives," Abeda said of a 2014 visit to the country.

He said Calgary's close-knit Eritrean community has been extremely supportive of his Olympic bid.

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)

Abeda's parents came to Canada as refugees, fleeing the war of independence in the 1980s.

They'll be accompanying him to South Korea when he competes.

"Eritrea was a country that fought for independence for almost 30 years, and they're very proud of me for being able to carry on my roots and my heritage," Abeda said.

Abeda's short-term goal is to qualify for a final at the Olympics, but after that he plans on returning to Calgary to finish his degree. 

"Right now my focus is to go to the Olympics, but afterward I'd like to finish school, do some coaching and get the Eritrean community on some skis," he said.

Listen to Abeda's interview with the Homestretch:

With files from the Calgary Homestretch