A chance meeting in a bar in Mombasa, Kenya, changed the course of Sabrina Simader’s life. “I think that was the beginning of everything,” says Simader. “I was born in Mombasa in Kilifi, my stepdad [Josef from Austria] met my mom [Sarah from Kenya] in Mombasa, and my stepdad was the reason why I’m ski racing, so everything started in Mombasa.”
Simader’s stepfather introduced the young Sabrina to alpine skiing. Now, many years on, Simader has represented Kenya at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea and qualified to compete in next year’s in Beijing. Had it not been for that serendipitous meeting, it’s decidedly unlikely she would be hurtling down mountain slopes at terrifying speed with great aplomb.
“My stepdad was there with his work colleagues and he saw my mom and they immediately fell in love, even though they didn’t speak the same language. But it was just a really romantic love story. I always keep reminding myself and asking myself why me? Why did I have that much luck and so many opportunities through my stepfather? I believe in the universe and I think that happened for a reason, and so I’m really thankful and glad for this.”
Simader moved to Austria at the age of three, and taking her first wobbly strides on skis was a natural progression considering her stepdad owned a ski lift. Having mastered the art of staying upright, she started competing at the age of five and steadily climbed up the ranks, making impressive progress and winning races. She competed at the Youth Winter Olympics in 2016 and the senior showpiece followed two years later.
While she’s certainly proved her pedigree on the slopes, Simader admits to having had plenty of doubts along the way. Being the only Black woman out there is not easy. “I started in 2016 internationally with FIS [Fédération internationale de ski, the world’s skiing governing body] races. I had some pretty good seasons, but the beginning was really challenging for me as the first Black woman in the sport,” she says.
“It was really a challenging situation because everyone was looking at me – ‘What is she doing here? A Black girl skiing, can she ski?’ I always felt like I was in the wrong place, which was lonely. I questioned myself, asking what am I really doing here? Maybe it’s not the right sport for me. But I managed to stay focused, to believe in myself. My family, my mom, my coach, my friends, they always believed in me, so I kept going and I achieved some really good results in international FIS races.
“I reached some really good points and that helped me to qualify for the Winter Olympics in 2018 in South Korea, which I’m really proud of. I’m really glad for my family and friends as they’ve given me so much strength just to believe in myself, even if I didn’t believe that much in the beginning. I believe in myself now 100%. Otherwise I couldn’t do this at this level,” she adds.
A Kenyan and an asset
Despite living in Europe for most of her life, Simader still feels entirely Kenyan and enjoys trips back to her motherland to connect with family. “When I was in Kenya recently, I really got the feeling that my roots are there. That is where my first home was and it will always be my first home. It doesn’t matter where I grew up. It’s my first home and I actually feel really Kenyan. I look like a Kenyan, I [speak] Kikuyu as my first language,” explains Simader, who also speaks German, English and a little Italian and Swahili.
She’s adamant she would never consider representing Austria, despite all the additional financial support that might offer. “I’ve thought about this question. I get the question from other people really often, but I was born in Kenya, I grew up in Kenya for three years, my family is from Kenya, I look like a Kenyan – why should I represent Austria? I’m proud to be a Kenyan … that’s my brand, what I am. I couldn’t think about representing Austria. I’ve invested so much through some really tough moments and I fight for Kenya. So, no way.”
It’s this kind of passion for the country that has been hailed by Paul Tergat, the Kenyan Olympic Committee’s president and a double Olympic silver medallist on the athletics track. “She is certainly someone who is making our country be known around the world. Having been recognised and appointed in 2018 as a [United Nations] environment ambassador as well, it greatly underscores the often-stated fact that Kenya’s sportspeople are the biggest assets of promoting the country,” Tergat told Kenya’s The Standard during the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships 2021 in Cortina, where Simader was competing earlier this year.
‘’With the Covid-19 pandemic having hit the country in terms of tourists, it is gratifying to note that one Kenyan is causing a lot of excitement in this part of the world. We all know that Kenya hosts very many Italians and Sabrina’s participation in this championship has strongly reinforced that awareness,” added Tergat.
Despite being a pioneer and ambassador for her country, gaining financial support for the hugely expensive sport is still a constant challenge for Simader, who has resorted to crowdfunding campaigns in the past.
“It’s a slow process … It was always pretty challenging to get the support from Kenya, especially from the government. We are still working on it but getting support from the National Olympic Committee is a really good step. There were some tough moments and situations at the beginning – it was very crazy and frustrating at some points. But now we try to cope with it better and they are supporting me and I think we are coming to the next level for support from the [committee],” she points out.
Despite the challenges, Simader will proudly be waving the Kenyan flag at next year’s Winter Games, as she did in Pyeongchang. “To compete at the Games in 2018 was just an emotional feeling. The opening ceremony, carrying the Kenyan flag – it was so emotional for me, going out there after the Canadian team who had so many athletes and then me as the only athlete from Kenya with some of my coaches and the manager,” she recalls.
“I know that millions of Kenyans were watching me and they’re proud of me and they were just sending me energy. It was an incredible feeling that I’ll never forget.”
Marrying roots with passion
Simader wasn’t the first African skier to compete at the Games. Fellow Kenyan Philip Boit paved the way before her in cross-country skiing, competing at the Winter Olympics in 1998, 2002 and 2006. But she was the first Kenyan woman and the first downhill skier to represent her country, a feat that has earned her the nickname of Snow Leopard – marrying her roots with her chosen passion. And she has the stylish kit to match the moniker.
“I got the idea from my coach’s daughter. She also designed the race suits, and I’m so thankful for her because she’s so creative. I’m really thankful that she had the idea about the Snow Leopard. I think I wouldn’t be so inspired but now I’m really identifying with the name.”
Simader suffered a crash in the giant slalom event at the 2018 Games and finished 38th in the super-G, but will be gunning for a better result in 2022. “What I want to achieve in Beijing is to be the best and fastest version of myself. I can’t say anything more because my fastest version could be top 30, top 20, top 10 – I don’t know. But I just want to focus on being the best and the fastest version of myself, nothing else, and what the results will be, nobody knows.”
It’s always been the prospect of going faster than ever before that’s inspired the 23-year-old. “I love to be as fast as possible from the starting gate to the finish line. I love to push in every turn, I love to get faster and faster from turn to turn. I love the wind on my face, I love the speed feeling, I love the feeling to be free, to be in nature, to just connect with myself, to connect with the universe, to connect with nature, to connect with the snow, to connect with my skis, with my material. I just love everything about skiing.
“That is what I am always saying – that skiing is not just like a sport or a job for me, actually it is my life. It has been from the beginning.”
It’s a life – and career – that would certainly have made Josef, who died in 2012 when Sabrina was just 14, exceedingly proud.