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Togo's 1st Winter Olympian wants to inspire Africa

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 10:06 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Togo's Mathilde Amivi Petitjean catches her breath after finishing the women's 10K classical-style cross-country race at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Togo's first competitor at the Winter Olympics, cross-country skier Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean, hopes her debut in Sochi will inspire other African athletes to compete in winter sports.

Petitjean crossed the line in the women's 10-kilometer classical race Thursday in 68th place, nearly 10 minutes behind winner Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland.

"I think all the people in all (African) countries are happy for me," said Petitjean, who turns 20 next Wednesday. "It's good for African countries that they see it's possible to participate in the Winter Olympic Games."

Togo's first Winter Olympics team consists of Petitjean and Alpine skier Alessia Afi Dipol, who is set to compete in the women's giant slalom and slalom next week. Italian-born, 18-year-old Dipol, however, has no family ties to Togo. She has become a naturalized citizen.

Petitjean was born in Niger to a Togolese mother. The family moved to Haute-Savoie in the French Alps when she was aged two. Becoming a skier, then, wasn't as unusual for her as it is for most Togolese girls.

"I practiced cross-country since I was 12 years old," she said. "It happened by chance. I tried it and continued doing it."

Spending most of her life in France, Petitjean never considered becoming an Olympian for Togo until she was being asked to.

Her Olympic adventure started 11 months ago. In March, she received a Facebook message from an official from the Togolese ski federation, enquiring whether she would be interested in representing Togo at the Sochi Games.

"I spoke with my family and they said, 'It's OK, let's go for Sochi!'" Petitjean said.

Her career has been made possible by her own family, overcoming a lack of funds from the Togo federation. She now hopes that competing at the Olympics and the subsequent media attention may help attract some sponsors.

"It's very difficult because the team hasn't got money for training," she said. "It's hard for such a little team to continue."

Thursday's race was her sole appearance in Sochi — Petitjean has only enough FIS points in the classical discipline to qualify for an Olympic start.

Living in France for almost her whole life means most of her friends are in Europe.

"I have a lot of messages on my Facebook," she said. "The press don't watch the winter sports in Africa but in France they do, they watch me on TV. But my uncle and my cousin will follow (me) in Togo."

Her Olympic debut has her longing for more, and her focus has already been turning toward the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I'll train again and I will participate in the next Olympic Games, hopefully," said Petitjean, who also hopes to finish high school soon. She's really raising her sights for the next Olympics. "My goal for Korea, probably, I want gold."

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