Jackson resident training to be the first Jordanian in the Winter Olympics

For Sharif Zawaideh, qualifying for the Olympics in alpine ski racing is about a lot more than speed. He is hoping to add diversity to an overwhelmingly white sport.
Sharif Zawaideh has about 20 seconds to shave off his time to qualify for the Olympics. But the goal to compete is about a lot more than speed.

by | May 21, 2023 | Race in America, Recreation

Sharif Zawaideh is no stranger to adventure. He’s skied the Grand Teton on snowblades, just for the bragging rights. He’s spent three winters living outside in a children’s teepee in the woods at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort because it was a free place to live.

Now he’s training for a new challenge: Olympic alpine ski racing.

“I have no race background. I ski really well – I’ve done a bunch of ridiculous things on snowblades but that’s not the same as racing,” Zawaideh said.

There may be a few U.S. Olympic hopefuls in Jackson Hole, one of the country’s premier skiing destinations and training grounds. 

But if all goes according to plan, Zawaideh will compete for the Jordanians, becoming the first from the country to compete in the winter games. 

“If I get to be that person and fuse my heritage and my passion, I don’t know that there are many other people better suited for this one destiny,” Zawaideh explained. 

He grew up in Seattle, the son of Jordanian immigrants. 

“Three of my four grandparents are from the same village. I can trace back my lineage 16 grandfathers, all in that same village,” Zawaideh said. 

The skiing bug bit him at a young age. He learned to ski with his family at Alpental in the Cascade Mountains. 

He later moved to Jackson Hole for a season after college. And in a tale as old as the Tetons, he fell in love with Wyoming and stayed. Now 43, he’s lived here for two decades.

“Still skiing every day,” he noted. 

As a Jordanian growing up in the U.S., Zawaideh says he’s often felt out of place in the ski world. 

“There’s definitely more diversity in Jackson than there was 20 years ago when I moved here. Twenty years ago, brown people skiing at Jackson Hole. It wasn’t a thing,” Zawaideh said.

Zawaideh’s friend Benjamin Alexander is a skier from Jamaica who competed in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

He said more countries typically participate in the summer games.

“There’s a huge disparity between the two, predominantly because of geographic necessities, because of the cost of equipment, institutionalized knowledge that’s required to make the equipment work,” he explained. 

Alexander is trying to expand participation in winter sports and diversify skiing. He’s working with the Jamaican Ski Federation to bring the next generation of Jamaican kids to the Youth Winter Olympics in 2024.

“If you look at where most people of color are based in this country, they’re in urban centers, unlikely to have parents that ski and they’re also unlikely to have parents with a high level of disposable income,” Alexander said.

He’s inspired by new faces in prominent positions in the sport. 

“I think what has to happen is there need to be more ambassadors such as Sharif, such as myself, to prove that this thing is exciting, that it’s interesting,” Alexander explained.

Zawaideh’s partner, Louise Sanseau agreed. 

“The Olympics represents a certain group of people who have training embedded in their socio-economic structure. So the big question is, is the Olympics representing that population of the best athletes, or is it representing a place where everyone comes from all parts of the world to gather and compete in a way that brings diversity and bridges our differences around sports.” 

Sanseau said in the time they’ve been together she has seen Zawaideh take on all kinds of challenges.

“He will have many goals in his life that seem crazy to people but not crazy at all to me. That’s just who Sharif is,she added.

Zawaideh says his biggest obstacle in making the Olympics is his age. He’s older than his competition. In his first race this past March in Big Sky, Montana he fell on his first day. He finished 20 seconds behind the top skiers.

“I was going up against a bunch of 17, 18 and 19-year-old kids. They’re just stronger and better. And, you know, I ski 100 days a year. I wouldn’t think that skiing a one-minute race course would make me tired. But my legs were burning and I was breathing heavy. So there’s a bit of training that needs to happen from a strength training perspective, not just the ski training,” Zawaideh explained.

It’s not just the physical differences between him and his teenage competition, but also the challenge of finding the time to fit it all into his life. 

“I own a business. I have a relationship. I have another job teaching skiing here in Jackson. Trying to balance all of that and have any kind of life and then focus on racing… It’s just a lot to juggle.”

But with two and half years to train, Zawaideh thinks he has a good shot. If he makes the Winter Olympics in Italy in 2026 there will surely be lots of Wyomingites – and Jordanians – cheering him on. 

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About Emily Cohen

Emily has served as executive director of KHOL since June 2019. She has a background in ecological design and urban planning and has worked as a teacher on the US-Mexico border in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, as a policy wonk in Washington, DC and as a land use planner in Wyoming. She enjoys getting away from the operations side of radio to produce original stories about arts and culture in Jackson.

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