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Iraqi Athlete Trains in US for Winter Olympics

In the hot climate around Baghdad, sliding at high speed down an icy bobsled chute is not the first thing that comes to mind, but Iraqi athlete Faisal Faisal hopes it could become reality. Faisal is training with the U.S. Olympic team in Lake Placid, New York in the hope of representing Iraq at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

The sport of skeleton involves sliding head first on a small sled down a bobsled track. Skeleton sliders use the same track as bobsledders and luge racers, but their faces are just a few centimeters off the icy surface. Speeds can reach 128 kilometers per hour.

It is not the kind of sport one would imagine in the searing heat of Iraq. But at the U.S. training center in Lake Placid, New York, Iraqi slider Faisal Faisal is hoping to change that perception.

Born in Baghdad in 1980, Faisal moved with his mother to Wales, where she was pursuing a degree in architecture. Faisal left Baghdad at 17 to study in Australia, but he says that his primary reason for leaving was to achieve something for his country. He hopes that that includes competing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

"Every achievement counts and we want to advance,” he said. “And if we want to move forward and advance as a country, we have to try new things. And winter sports is something that we have never tried before, so I thought I would take the responsibility and make the first attempt and ultimately try to get into the Winter Olympics."

Faisal says that his family and friends wondered what he was thinking of when he decided to pursue winter sports. But he says that their perceptions have changed.

"It does not really snow much where I come from. But I guess now that things are starting to progress, people are starting to care about it now, and they are starting to understand how great it would be if we do actually get to achieve the goal [of competing in the Olympics]," he added.

Faisal says that he was disturbed by the war in Iraq, and that helped motivate him to pursue the goal of competing in the 2006 Winter Games.

"I just felt that it was my responsibility, and I really had to do something to do my part to move us forward,” he noted. “And of course, I will not be able to make big changes, but every small achievement counts. And if I get to achieve what I set out to achieve, which is the Winter Olympics, I guess that I will try to do my part."

U.S. skeleton coach Steve Peters has been working with Faisal, and says he has shown promise in training.

"In the really limited amount of time that Faisal has had on the ice just in the last couple of weeks, he has shown remarkable progress and has been able to really hold his own with people at the same level,” said Mr. Peters. “So much so that I know that he has a pretty good chance of having some success in this sport in the next couple of years."

Terry Kent of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation says that Faisal is in a similar situation to other athletes who are trying to make the Olympics for the first time. Kent says the Iraqi hopeful has to pursue his dream one step at a time.

"He has got to gain experience on different tracks,” he explained. “He has got to get an organization recognized by the FIBT [International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation] so that he can get a license to drive, an international license to drive at competition. That would be his first step and he is going to be working on that soon."

The Olympics start in Turin, Italy in a little more than one year. American Jimmy Shea is the defending men's Olympic skeleton champion. If Faisal Faisal has his way, Shea will have to defend that title against the first Iraqi skeleton slider ever.