This retired DJ is Jamaica's 1st Olympic alpine skier — and he got his start in Canada
British-Jamaican athlete Benjamin Alexander learned to ski in British Columbia at the age of 32
The first time Benjamin Alexander went to a ski resort, he was just there to party and play tunes. Now he's heading to the Winter Olympics in Beijing to represent Jamaica on the slopes.
The 38-year-old — who strapped on his first pair of skis six years ago in British Columbia — has become the first Jamaican to qualify for alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics.
"I owe a lot to Canada for my skiing experience," Alexander told As It Happens host Carol Off.
Alexander, who was raised in the U.K. and is of Jamaican heritage, will compete in the giant slalom event at in Beijing in February.
Learning how to fall, and get back up
He got his first taste of ski culture during a Christmas trip to a resort in Revelstoke, B.C., in 2015 with his buddies. He was there, he says, to DJ and to party.
"I was just there as you know, a house cat, making sure the beer was cold, making sure the Jacuzzi was warm and, you know, eating too much," he said.
Then one day, he and his friends took a helicopter to the top of the mountain to have lunch with the skiers.
"And at the end of that lunch, I saw my friends pop on the 130-millimetre powder skis and just disappear over the ridge line," he said. "I thought that turned them into superheroes."
He decided then that his days of watching from the sidelines were over. Just two months later, he took his first ski lessons in Whistler, B.C. He was 32 years old.
"I fell 27 times on that first run, and I think most sane people would have said, that's OK. That's not for me," he said.
"I saw 27 as a baseline number to improve upon, and just spent the rest of the day on that very same run … and I got it down to seven [falls] by the end of the day."
Inspired by Cool Runnings
Within a month of skiing, Alexander was plotting his path to the Olympics. He says he was inspired by the 1993 film Cool Runnings, based on a true story about Jamaica's first bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988.
"Growing up in England and that movie coming out when I was 10 years old was one of the biggest senses of pride of being Jamaican that I'd had as a young kid," he said.
Dudley Stokes, the pilot from from that historic team, has since become one of Alexander's mentors.
Stokes says he first became aware of Alexander in 2020 during a virtual livestream of Cool Runnings, where the Olympic hopeful commented repeatedly about his athletic goals, and his desire to touch base with Stokes.
At first, Stokes says he was wary. But Alexander was persistent, and eventually Stokes's daughter convinced him to have a conversation with this young man who idolized him.
"And in a few minutes, I realized that he was the real deal," Stokes said.
The pair have since been in touch regularly, with the four-time Olympian offering his best guidance and advice.
"Having him on my team has not only given my journey validation to those looking at what I'm doing from the outside, but he has been such a resource of information," Alexander said.
"After all, he wrote the book on doing outlandish things as a Caribbean person in the Winter Games."
Stokes is one of several people who has helped Alexander on his journey, he said. Another is Mike Schneider, an Ontario ski coach he met on Reddit, who has helped him navigate the complex web of Olympics qualifications.
"Benjamin has reminded me that with a lot of enthusiasm and hard work, anything is possible in ski racing. As crazy as his idea was two years ago, his enthusiasm had me hooked and I knew I had to help however I could," Scheider said in an email.
"I can't wait to see him in the opening ceremony and live on TV on the big race day. It's such an inspiring story."
His other mentor is U.S. skier Gordon Gray, who he met in 2019.
"I said to Gordon, 'I have this crazy dream of maybe going to the Olympics, but I don't know what that means or what that entails. Can you see me ski and tell me what you think?' A few hours later, at lunchtime, he says to me, 'Benji, you have the worst skiing technique I have ever seen. It is atrocious. It's an abomination to watch,'" Alexander said.
But he also saw that Alexander was fearless.
"He paused and said, 'I think you have more than half the battle won. We can teach you technique, but if you're afraid, it doesn't matter how good your technique is, you're never going to be good in this sport.'"
As It Happens has reached out to Gray for comment.
Asked what advice he has for Alexander, Stokes said he hopes he honours Jamaica by giving it his best. But, he says he shouldn't focus too much on medals. It's more important to remember the experience and the people he meets along the way.
That should be no problem for Alexander.
"I would say [my chances of winning a medal are] slim to none, but that would be optimistic. I'm competing with people that have been skiing since they were two, have been racing for 20 years and have had their national ski federations pull hundreds of thousands of dollars into their development. My first race was just two years ago," he said.
"My story is really about participation and helping the next generation of Jamaicans do much better than I will do."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Benjamin Alexander produced by Chris Trowbridge.