(CNN) — Being an Olympian doesn’t come cheap.
By the time the average Winter Olympic athlete, who is unable to obtain sponsorship, has trained, qualified and competed, they can be thousands of dollars out of pocket.
For the likes of Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, German Madrazo from Mexico and Colombia’s Sebastian Uprimny that kind of financial commitment could have been prohibitive to participation at one of the world’s greatest events.
The unlikely trio — who became friends as they traveled the world taking part in Olympic qualifying races — provided one of the images of the Pyeongchang Games as they celebrated finishing the men’s 15 kilometer cross country skiing far behind the leaders in Pyeongchang.
But without the backing of a wealthy benefactor who once had Olympic ambitions of his own, they might not have even got to the start line.
‘Falling for cross-country skiing’
Paul Bragiel’s Olympic dream followed much the same path as that of the men he now financially supports — though without getting to the finish line.
The 41-year-old serial entrepreneur is the founder of Bragiel Brothers, an early stage technology fund in Silicon Valley, and a first round investor in ride sharing app Uber.
Then five years ago, he woke up to the realization that he had never tried chasing one of his biggest childhood dreams: becoming an Olympian.
An engineer by trade, Bragiel went about studying every single Summer and Winter Olympic sport in a systematic and technical way.
“I found there were four sports in the Winter Olympics that had somewhat more flexible rules in qualification,” he says. “Those sports were downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, bobsleigh and luge.”
Bragiel traveled the world, practicing all four extensively, before “falling in love” with cross-country skiing.
He soon upped sticks and moved permanently to Finland so he could be near some of the world’s best coaches.
“I stayed there for a full year,” he recalls. “Living and skiing every single day, where I’d never actually touched skis before that moment.”
After finding the means to begin training — which started just nine months before Sochi 2014 — the next hurdle was finding a county to represent.
How to become a national champion
A native of Chicago, Bragiel realized his chances of making Team USA were slim to none, so decided to use his contacts in Colombia to attempt to become a citizen there.
“I’ve no connections to Colombia, I don’t speak any Spanish,” he admits. “But I’d helped the government in the past with technology.
“When I told them my dream and that I’d like to become a Colombian, they were super excited about it and pumped,” he recalls fondly.
“They made it happen in record time and made me a citizen. So I ended up founding the Colombian cross-country ski team.”
“Once I became the first Colombian cross-country skier, by default I became the national champion,” he laughs. “And when you’re the national champion you automatically qualify for the Olympic trials.”
The 10 races, which count as Winter Olympic trials on the World Cup circuit, took Bragiel from Finland, Sweden and Norway to Switzerland, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Competing against the world’s top ranked skiers, Bragiel says he would finish anywhere between 50th and 70th place, “always bringing up the rear.”
His story generated a storm of media coverage, being splashed across the front page of the Wall Street Journal and retold in more than 20 different languages worldwide.
He says 95% of the skiing community were “super pumped” by his story and delighted with the amount of press coverage he was generating for the sport.
The other 5%, however, were angry that this man, “who is just not as good as us,” had the audacity to steal their limelight.
“Egos got in the way I guess,” he says. “They wanted the attention for themselves, even though they weren’t getting attention from the same type of media outlets.”
Bragiel remains philosophical about that mixed reaction: “95% of people liking you is pretty good in life.”
In the space of just nine months, Bragiel cut his time over 15km from three hours, to two hours, to an hour and a half, to under an hour. But he fell an agonizing two minutes short of the required 52 minute qualification time.
“Simply because I had this idea only nine months before Sochi, it was just not enough time,” he says somewhat ruefully.
“If I’d been doing it for three or four more months, I would have made it for sure, but time ran out unfortunately.”
The dream was to continue training and qualify for PyeongChang 2018, but major ankle surgery meant Bragiel was unable to compete at the level he needed to.
So he turned his attention to those athletes who shared his dream of making the Winter Olympics but can’t afford to.
Investing in Olympians
He set up a foundation to help athletes such as Taufatofua and Uprimny reach the Olympics
“It’s never been about the money here,” says Bragiel.
“It’s about letting people achieve their lifetime goals and compete at the highest level.
“I’m a huge fan of the Olympic spirit and the crazy fact is, the average Olympic athlete, in order to qualify for the Olympics, ends up $50,000 in debt.
“Most people you see on TV are wretchedly poor and so if there is anyway I can help them get across the line, I’ve been trying to do that.
“I think these guys bring a lot to the Olympics and they really liven up the place. Otherwise it would be all European countries and maybe a few Asian countries and that would be it. I think these guys really bring flavor.”
Before his involvement with Colombian skiing, only Chile and Argentina could boast any sort of pedigree in the sport, owing to the geographical advantage of being flanked by the Andes mountain range.
But in five short years, Bragiel has seen skiing blossom across South America, with national teams being set up in Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, though he admits their success have been varied.
“I think it’s only going to pick up more and more,” he says. “So me and Sebastian have plans to invest more in roller skiing in Colombia, I think the same thing will happen in Tonga and I hope German carries the torch in Mexico.”
While the athletes Bragiel has funded so far have been veterans (Taufatofua is 34, Uprimny 42 and Madrazo 43), he has now set his sights on cultivating a winter sports culture in “smaller, exotic countries” by investing in the youth.
However, he certainly isn’t ruling out investing in the likes of Taufatofua and Madrazo again.
“A lot of these guys are a little bit older,” he says. “I would like to see more go into kids that are 16-20 years old, or even younger in places like Colombia, Mexico and Tonga.
“If there are athletes who are getting close to the finishing line and are hitting a wall financially, like these guys did, I’m open to helping them out, especially if they come with really good attitudes and hearts.”
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