LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - On the eve of his country's historic election, Faisal Ghazi Faisal broke the one-minute mark in the America's Cup skeleton race yesterday, taking a major step toward his dream of being the first Iraqi Winter Olympian.
"I didn't expect that," said a beaming Faisal, surrounded by well-wishers and wrapped in the red, green and white Iraq flag. "It just felt great. I couldn't believe it when I saw 59. I was checking if that was really my time. I was asking around, 'Was that really mine?' "
He finished 32nd out of 37 racers in the time of 59.15, not good enough to make the 25-man cut for the second heat, but bettering his personal goal of not being last. He will race again today.
Faisal, a Baghdad native who has been studying in Australia for the last seven years, only began practicing the headfirst sport of skeleton three weeks ago.
"He really put it all together on game day," said his coach, Steve Peters. "He handled the pressure phenomenally."
Faisal decided he wanted to be a participant in the Winter Games after noting that his country was missing from the 1998 Nagano opening ceremony. But his attempts over the last three years to train as a skier, ski jumper or speed skater were rebuffed by Olympic officials from several nations, who thought his dream was too farfetched.
The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and the U.S. Olympic Committee encouraged him to come train in Lake Placid with developing athletes to see if he could learn the sport quickly enough to be considered for the Winter Games that will begin in February 2006 in Turin, Italy.
His parents still live in Baghdad. Faisal has declined to give their names for fear of reprisals.
"I have to call them because this is just amazing. It's a good first attempt. It couldn't come on a better day because tomorrow is an important day for us," said Faisal, 24. "This is my vote."
Faisal will train in Lake Placid for several more weeks before returning to Australia to finish the final semester of his work toward a business management degree.
His best chance of participating in the Winter Games is through an invitation from the IOC.
"They are proud of me back home," he said. "I don't feel that proud yet until I get there, until I carry the flag in the opening ceremony in Torino."