Chasing a dream can be completely and utterly exhausting, which is why the right push can make all the difference.
Perhaps no one knows that as well as former Utah Valley University track athlete, Akwasi Frimpong, who had been close to earning a spot to go to the Olympics — arguably the biggest stage in sports — on a couple of occasions before moving on to other things.
But, like most wise husbands know, a wife often knows best.
“It was a time where I pretty much gave up,” Frimpong said in an interview in January. “My shoulders were down. I decided to use my degree and not worry about it any more. It was just so hard.”
Life moved on for Frimpong and things with his wife Erica Shields-Frimpong were good — mostly.
“I was selling Kirby vacuums in Arizona and I had 20 people working for me, so it was a really successful business,” Frimpong said. “I was just sitting home one day and my wife could see that something was bothering me. She said, ‘I can see what’s going on.’ I said that I still felt like I had that competitiveness in me and I don’t get that at the gym. I told her want to go for my dream one more time. And she said, ‘I don’t want you to be 99 years old and be whining about your Olympic dream, so let’s go for it.’”
That might have been a challenging decision for many spouses but Shields-Frimpong — who has been married to Frimpong for three-and-a-half years — understands the adrenaline rush of elite-level competition. She competed on the track team at UVU from 2007-2009 and at Brigham Young University from 2009-2012.
She explained that her own experiences have helped her be there for her husband as he embarked on the journey of learning the sport of skeleton.
“It takes everything,” she said. “Staying injury-free is the biggest part and the hardest part. The mental aspect is huge and being able to just focus.”
That pivotal moment for the Frimpong family set them on the path leading them through tough times but eventually resulted in the achievement of the main goal.
Frimpong is now in Pyeongchang, South Korea, with his family to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
“I’m excited to see him swing his flag,” Shields-Frimpong said. “It gives you the butterflies with the amount of people there and every country coming together. We are excited for it.”
He has become something of a celebrity now, since he is the first skeleton athlete to represent the nation of Ghana in the Olympics.
His history has been one of numerous trials, beginning growing up in a tiny room in Ghana.
“My mom left Ghana when I was 3 years old so I stayed with my grandma,” Frimpong said. “I lived with nine other grandkids in a room that was four or five meters square. We didn’t have much but we had he other.”
When he was 8 years old, he joined his parents in the Netherlands, but as an illegal immigrant, facing many uncertainties.
“It was worse to start off than in Ghana,” Frimpong said. “We did well in school but we couldn’t really continue because no school would accept me. I broke my ankle in 2004 and no doctor wanted to help me because I was an illegal immigrant.”
A breakthrough came when he saw a friend with a medal.
“I didn’t want to be a part of running because that was always the punishment for other sports,” Frimpong said. “But my neighbor showed me a medal he had won and was bragging about how fast he was. I was like, if he can do it, I can do it.”
He started running and had some phenomenal success, but injuries and his immigration status proved to be stumbling blocks. When he heard about opportunities in the United States, he sent out information and got a scholarship from UVU.
“We started to send my profiles to a lot of NCAA schools,” Frimpong said. “There was a bunch of them and UVU gave me the best deal, giving me close to a full-ride. Studying and getting a degree was important for me. Scott Houle recruited me and really cared for his athletes. He helped me with the process, helping to focus on something I was good at.”
College brought athletic success, a degree in marketing with a business management minor, a wonderful wife and — in the end — proximity to winter sports.
“That was the first time I felt a little bit free,” Frimpong said. “I didn’t know about bobsledding or skeleton. I lived close to the most beautiful facility in the world. It was a huge thing. UVU was a huge blessing.”
When his bid to be an Olympic sprinter for the Netherlands in 2012 was derailed, former British bobsledder and Dutch coach Nicola Minichiello convinced Frimpong to learn bobsled.
“It’s typical that a lot of sprinters get recruited for bobsled,” Frimpong said. “I didn’t know if it was something for me but I knew the ‘Cool Runnings’ story and that triggered me to give it a shot.”
Two years later, he found himself again close to the Olympics but as an alternate, he didn’t end up making it to Sochi in 2014.
That was the point he thought his dreams were over, but another call from Minichiello and the support of his wife changed his future.
“I said in 2018 he was making it to the Olympics and then we are done,” Shields-Frimpong said. “But I was like OK, you’re going. You are doing this. It’s exciting that he is.”
As he got into the sport, he also realized he felt a strong desire to give back to the country of his heritage.
“At the age of 31, I asked myself what I had done for Ghana,” Frimpong said. “I had done nothing. I decided wanted to leave a legacy behind that would outlive me.”
He reached out and started working with Ghana, including setting up the Ghana Bobsled and Skeleton Federation for athletes in his home country who also want to chase their dreams.
“I went back last year after being gone 23 years,” Frimpong said. “I had been so far away but this was a great way to connect back to my culture and heritage, to the people where I am from.”
Now, with the help of sponsors like DoTERRA, Murdock Hyundai Murray and Cocoa of Ghana, he is the first West African to compete in skeleton. Shields-Frimpong said it’s a sport that makes her nervous when she watches her husband compete.
“At first, it was really scary,” she said. “He’s going 80 miles per hour and could hit his head. At first, I couldn’t watch. He was all over the place and I was like, don’t show me. But it is not as bad now, even though it’s a little scary knowing he is going that speed. When I’m on the freeway going 70 mph, I think he’s got just a helmet on going this fast. That’s scary for me. I don’t like watching him crash.”
Shields-Frimpong laughed when asked if she was going to let their adorable 9-month-old daughter Ashanti slide when she gets older.
“She’s going to be a computer geek,” Shields-Frimpong said. “I told him we are not letting her do sports — too many injuries. But he always says he is doing this is to show our daughter that if you have a dream, you can work hard and it can come true. Everything he does and saving all his articles, he is doing that for her.”
While the family plans to make the most out of their time at the Olympics, Frimpong said he has his sights set on learning from the experience and making a lot of improvement before the 2022 Olympics.
“I made a long-term goal to medal in 2022,” he said. “I just keep getting better and better but it’s not good enough to be among the best of the world yet. The first experience is great but I want to be an athlete and perform. My wife said it’s not going to be perfect but to take that experience and build on it.I’ve only been doing it for a year-and-a-half and I’m going to be going against people who have been doing it for 15 years. It is a sport where it is about how many runs you have had.”
Shields-Frimpong said her favorite part of seeing her husband competing in skeleton has been seeing how much he enjoys it.
“Just watching him at worlds and seeing him doing his dance, it gives you goosebumps,” she said. “It’s a huge sacrifice for us because he’s gone six months out of the year but he was having fun and loving what he was doing. It’s exciting for him to finally reach the dream he has been dreaming of for so long.”