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Northwest Ski Towns Stock Olympic Teams Well Beyond USA

John Campbell
Both Olympic hopefuls racing for the U.S. Virgin Islands have Sun Valley ties. Jasmine Campbell (on left) is most likely to receive the one slot in Sochi allocated to the U.S territory. Sun Valley Ski Academy graduate (2013) Veronica Gaspar on right.

Next month, Sochi, Russia will host athletes from more than 85 nations at the Winter Olympics. Some of those countries might surprise you. They get no snow or have no mountains.

Remember the Disney movie "Cool Runnings?" It immortalized the Jamaican bobsled squad. Team Jamaica is coming back for more this year.

And so is the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. territory will likely be represented by a Whitman College student who calls Sun Valley, Idaho home.

Even though her father grimaces at the mention, skier Jasmine Campbell embraces the connection to the movie "Cool Runnings."

"I take pride in the fact that I have even an inkling of an association with them," says Campbell. "Even though it's a few islands away."

"An 18-hour job where I'm always thinking about skiing"

Jasmine Campbell is used to comparisons ever since she set her sights on competing at the Winter Olympics. She was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands and that's whose flag she wants to carry in Sochi.

"When people ask me what I'm doing with the Virgin Islands the first thing they say is 'Jamaican bobsled team' even though it has nothing to do with it really."

Campbell plans to enter the slalom and giant slalom events.

If you made a movie about her it would likely contain more drama than comedy. The 22-year-old takes her quest very seriously. A double major in psychology and philosophy, Campbell is taking a year off from her studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla to pursue her Olympic dreams.

"It's just basically an 18 hour job where I'm always thinking about skiing," says Campbell. "I wake up in the morning, before going upstairs, I watch a ski video. When I go to bed at night I watch a ski video. During the day, I have double training sessions."

Campbell took up ski racing after her family moved to Sun Valley from the Caribbean. She was about 10 years old back then. It didn't take long before she was dreaming of being on the U.S. Ski Team. But then in high school, an injury derailed her ambitions for a long time.

These days, Campbell exceeds the minimum requirements to ski at the Olympics. But when I ask if she could qualify for the highly competitive Team USA, she shakes her head no. Her dad though says he tried to encourage his daughter to hold on to her Olympic dreams.

Skiing for the islands

John Campbell suggested she follow his path. He skied in the 1992 Winter Olympics on the Virgin Islands team.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Jasmine Campbell practices slalom racing on her home mountain, Sun Valley's Baldy.

  "It was probably the coolest two weeks of my entire life, barring having kids and getting married," he says. "I'm really excited for Jasmine to have this opportunity."

Decades ago, territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong successfully petitioned the International Olympic Committee. They won the right to field Olympic teams separate from their mother countries.

Since then, the president of the Virgin Islands Olympic Committee says his group has been on guard against interlopers looking for a back door into the Games.

"The chances of an athlete qualifying and representing the Virgin Islands are very high," explains Angel Morales. "We receive many requests from athletes who are United States citizens inquiring about the residency requirements to be able to participate for the Virgin Islands."

Those curious winter athletes usually lose interest when they learn to establish residency they have to live for three years in a place where it never snows. But Morales says there's no question Jasmine Campbell qualifies based on skill and her being born in the islands.

Campbell herself says she proudly wears the uniform of a nation she hasn't lived in for many years.

"I almost prefer doing it this way because I really get to recognize and honor a part of me that never really gets to be brought up," she says.

A warming trend

Campbell is by no means the only Northwest winter athlete bound for the Olympics under a flag other than the Stars and Stripes. An elite snowboarder from Bend, Oregon, Kent Callister is likely to compete for Australia. White Salmon, Washington native Vic Wild now rides for Russia, the country of his wife who is also a snowboard parallel slalom competitor. And tour company owner Roberto Carcelen from Seattle will represent Peru in cross country skiing.

Togo, Tonga, East Timor, Dominica and Zimbabwe are making their debut at the Winter Olympics in 2014. "We're seeing more and more entries from these parts of the world," says Janice Forsyth, the director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

Forsyth says she has noticed a dogged effort by the International Olympic Committee to expand interest and visibility of the Winter Games by including more warm weather countries. "Of course, the more countries that participate in the Games -- especially in different parts of the world -- the more spectators they get, which means more revenue in terms of broadcasting rights," she says.

"There's a real business incentive behind this interest to get more and more nations, especially tropical nations, into the Olympic Games."

Last year, the IOC awarded "Olympic Scholarships" to the two top-ranked alpine skiers from the U.S. Virgin Islands to help cover equipment, travel and coaching expenses on the Road to Sochi. Jasmine Campbell was one of the recipients. The other USVI skier, 18-year-old Veronica Gaspar, also honed her skills on the Sun Valley ski team.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.