His friends just don’t get it. Why would anyone want to clatter into poles at high speed? Surely you’d want to avoid such collisions in competition? Then again, they are South African schoolchildren and slalom skiing (skiing down a slope between poles or gates) isn’t a sport to which they’ve been exposed on a regular basis.
That’s what makes Thabo Rateleki’s story so remarkable. Had the 17-year-old grown up anywhere else in the country, it probably wouldn’t have worked out the way it has. But because of favourable geography, exceptionally hard work and tenacity, and some help and guidance along the way, the talented teen recently returned from representing South Africa at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland in January.
Thabo was one of just two South African athletes participating, the other being Hanlé van der Merwe, who also hails from a rural area of the Eastern Cape not far from the country’s only ski resort, Tiffendell. It was the first time Thabo had left South Africa and the first time he’d been on a plane.
“I am very proud of myself and so happy that I made it to the Olympics. Flying for the first time was very fun and a bit scary when the plane took off and when it landed,” he admitted, adding that watching the film Snakes on a Plane before his departure hadn’t helped his anxiety levels.
In Lausanne, Switzerland he was one of 1 872 athletes from 79 countries taking part across 81 events at the Games, which are reserved for competitors between the ages of 15 and 18.
While Hanlé and Thabo were the only representatives from Africa, he was quick to point out that he wasn’t the only black athlete on the slopes.
“It wasn’t so weird because I was not the only black skier. There was another black guy from another country,” he said, referring to Haiti’s Mackenson Florindo, whose story is another remarkable one. But unlike Thabo, he was adopted by a French family at the age of three and raised more than 7 500km from Haiti in the winter sports mecca of Grenoble.
Taking on athletes who have skied for most of their young lives, Thabo performed exceptionally well. He completed both runs in the slalom and finished 39th out of close to 80 competitors, when almost half the field failed to finish.
“I felt so excited and happy because I have never finished in a very big finish with fans and people cheering for me. It was one of the best moments of my life,” he said of crossing the finish line.
Journey to being a skier
Thabo felt like a champion. Considering that he strapped on his first pair of skis at the age of 12, you can’t argue with that. The young athlete is coached by South Africa’s three-time winter Olympian Alex Heath, who was full of praise for his young charge.
“Thabo is a pleasure to coach. To start with, he’s a good kid. He’s so polite and it’s been a pleasure watching him grow over the few years I’ve been able to work with him [and see him grow] into the wonderful young man that he is now. He has an absolute passion for the sport, which has helped him succeed and got him to the Youth Olympics.
“To qualify, he had to meet criteria set out by the international ski federation. They capped the qualification at 80 athletes for men and women, and he made it in with the results he was able to achieve in the international races in South Africa, beating out other South Africans along the way.”
Heath explained that unseasonably warm weather in Lausanne had led to drastic measures being taken to ensure that skiing could take place.
“That entailed a lot of water and then it turned cold again, so the slopes were icier than an ice rink and it was really tough.”
A quick learner
Thabo had never before raced giant slalom, where the gates through which the competitors must pass are spaced much further apart, and the tricky conditions meant he missed a gate on his second run, leading to disqualification.
“But he knew that slalom was his discipline and when it came time for slalom, again there were very tough conditions, a lot of guys going out and making mistakes. So, we had a good tactical game plan for what he needed to do to make sure he got to the finish,” Heath said.
“The first run, he had some ripping turns in some of the sections and I was so, so happy and proud to see him ski intelligently where he needed to, to make sure he got down in one piece. The second run he did more of the same, had a bit of a mistake, but managed to get down and I was so happy for him. He was so proud of his achievements as well, 39th place out of close to 80 starters. It’s a result that he and we should be very proud of, especially coming from only having skied in South Africa before.
“I think he’s a great ambassador, not only for the sport, but for young South Africans on how to carry yourself and be humble and to be kind. He’s a kind boy and that makes him so likeable.”
Looking back to where it all began, Thabo said: “I remember when I first had skis on, it was scary. My first time putting them on was when I was 12 years old. It was scary and I fell, but I never gave up because I enjoyed doing it. It went so well that I learnt to ski in less than 60 minutes.
“At that stage, I didn’t know about the Olympics. I just wanted to ski.”
Kath Isted, who together with husband Chris has been one of Thabo’s main supporters, explained a bit of the back story.
“Thabo became a member of the Ikhephu Ski Pups development programme at Tiffindell Ski Resort in the winter of 2014, and joined the Wartrail group of young skiers that went up to Tiffindell every Wednesday afternoon for ski coaching.
“He was living with his gran on the farm Bidstone and attended the Wartrail Farm School. Bidstone is 8km from our home farm, Reedsdell, at the foot of the Volunteershoek Pass that goes to Tiffindell Ski Resort.
“The following year, Thabo moved with his mother and siblings to Reedsdell Farm, where his stepdad Andile was working for us. His mother Margaret also started her employment with us that year. Thabo, along with my kids Lauren and Karl, and his friends Mpulukeng, Puseletso and Thabiso continued with Ski Pups that winter – the Wartrail Group, as they became known on the slopes.
“In 2016, the Wartrail Group were invited into the Winter Sports Academy, to train with Alex Heath on the weekends during the school term, from June to August. This is the year that Thabo started getting podium places in the slalom in the Tiffindell Race Series.
“At the end of 2016, he and Thabiso graduated grade 7 and moved on to high school in 2017. They both attended the full-time Winter Sports Academy programme from June to August that year, and again in 2018 and 2019.”
Becoming an SA champion
Thabo was dedicated to the sport from the start. As Isted explained: “His first SA Children’s Championships, he missed his lift at the bottom of the pass and he started walking the 19km to Tiffindell to participate in the races. Luckily, he was picked up 5km into his walk, at the top of the Volunteershoek Pass, a climb of 700m in gradient.
“When he puts his mind to something, nothing can stop him,” added Isted, who covers Thabo’s race fees, transport, ski gear, hostel fees, school clothing and transport. An Australian family, the Lendichs, who he befriended while living with his grandmother, cover school fees and his Winter Ski Academy fees. They travelled to Lausanne to support Thabo on his Olympic adventure.
Having had a taste of major competition, the grade 10 Barkly East High School student already has his sights set on greater things.
“My goal is to be the South African champion, and start teaching other kids how to ski and be a coach one day or make skis,” he explained.
“It’s also to train harder and learn not to give up, and stay away from things that will destroy my dream, because becoming the best skier is my dream.”
It goes without saying that while geography played its part in introducing the young man to the sport, it could well be a hindrance in taking it further, considering Tiffendell is only open from June to September each year.
“Ski racing is a tough sport,” said Heath. “For me, the fact that Thabo qualified in his own right is as good as a medal, especially if you consider where he comes from and the short amount of time they get to spend on the snow.
“If Thabo was to take this sport forward, he’s definitely on track to one day qualify for the Olympic Games. To make a financial career out of ski racing, there’s only a handful of guys at the top who are making the money and that would require significant change to his whole lifestyle. He’d have to be on the snow pretty much year round to be able to do that,” added Heath, who was based between the United States and Europe during his ski career.
“But it will for sure open doors in the sport of skiing, for jobs going forward. The fundamentals of being a ski racer and the ability that he has, he would quite easily be able to get a job as a ski instructor and make quite a good life for himself doing the sport he loves. So there are opportunities for him in that regard, for sure.
“I was really proud of the fact that he qualified and the Games were, I think, a life-changing experience for Thabo. Seeing Europe for the first time, skiing on big mountains… there was so much that was so new for him. It just opened his eyes in a way that can only inspire him to do more and greater things.”