VERNON, B.C. — In May of 2015, a new skier turned up at the Sovereign Lake snow camp. He struggled to skate up small hills and fell down often. In the coming week, that same skier will represent Portugal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
At first glance, Kequyen Lam seemed like a typical Canadian nordic newbie. Great lateral balance combined with regular falls forward and backward revealed his alpine background. Six months later, Lam turned up at the Sovereign Lake NorAm with intermediate technique, much-improved fitness and a total determination to recover from a bad cough in time for the distance race. Asked by FasterSkier to explain the shocking improvement over the summer, he said, “I used to be a snowboarder. And I worked hard.”
Fast-forward to 2018 and Lam, 38, has a FIS ranking that created an Olympic quota spot for Portugal. The journey was anything but simple, both as a skier and as a dual citizen.
FasterSkier caught up with Lam at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre on Jan. 21, one day before the official announcement of the 2018 Olympic quota allocation.
Becoming A Nordic Skier
A bit of Googling shows that Lam’s casual reference to snowboarding wasn’t the whole truth. He competed at the 2013 Sochi Snowboard World Cup and was on track to qualify for the 2014 Olympics in that sport. A season-ending crash in Austria resulted in a shoulder injury that stopped that dream and changed Lam’s path.
“Everything was going super well, but at this track, something mentally wasn’t right,” he recalled. “I was in a state of fear: fear of getting hurt, fear of injury. Physically, I believe I was ready, but mentally, it was tough.”
After the end of his snowboarding dream, Lam worked in Golden, B.C., as a pharmacist.
“I kind of moved on with my life, lived in Golden, did the whole career thing, did things for fun,” Lam explained. “I’m just the type of person where doing things for fun isn’t enough.”
Lam’s path into cross-country skiing started less than three years ago, at age 36, with Paralympic athlete and friend Tyler Mosher, who told Lam to “talk to Maria.”
“I talked to Maria Lundgren, and she forwarded me to Tony Chin,” he said of Lundgren, a British Columbia Ski Team coach, and Chin, one of the head coaches at the Nordic Racers Ski Club in Vancouver.
Through Chin, he met Ryan Olson, a masters skier.
“Ryan Olson is pretty hardcore guy when it comes to skiing,” Lam said. “He is dedicated and he gives ‘er hard. That was the reason I was able to learn the beginning steps of cross-country skiing.”
Olson connected Lam with Matt Liebsch, an American Birkebeiner champion and competitive American skier who organizes an annual camp at the Haig glacier near Canmore, Alberta. Lam spent three days there with Canadian Olympians Dasha Gaiazova and Ivan Babikov before training with Liebsch’s group on the glacier.
“I spent ten days total up at the Haig in 2015, and that’s when I learned how to ski, how to skate ski,” Lam explained.
His introduction to nordic skiing took him through a who’s who of Western Canadian skiing in just his first three months of the sport. From Mosher to Glenn Bond (Lam’s current coach), there was and is a large community of people who help skiers progress. For Lam and the Olympics, progress is measured in FIS points.
“The magic points! The first races happened in Finland,” Lam explained. “Last year, I went to Finland, I did a couple races there. I scored some good points there. And then there were some [rollerski] races in Columbia in December of this year where I got the majority of my points. It was actually those races that got me enough points to get under the 300-point standard to meet the Olympic qualification criteria.”
How does a Canadian come to have dual citizenship with Portugal? The story starts in Asia.
Lam’s grandparents immigrated to Vietnam from China before being driven out by the Indochina War (a 31-year Vietnamese civil war which bled over into Cambodia and Laos). When the war ended in 1975 with the defeat of the South Vietnamese government, Lam’s parents returned to their noodle business. The new Socialist Republic of Vietnam was not forgiving to groups that were believed to have supported the losing side. In 1978 and ’79, around 450,000 Vietnamese of Chinese ethnicity were expelled or escaped from Vietnam. Lam’s parents left as ‘boat people’, spending a month on an open boat before landing in Macao. Lam was conceived and born in a refugee camp in Macao in 1979, which was then a Portuguese colony, before being flown to Canada at the age of three months to live with a host family in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
“My grandfather on my mum’s side, they had made it to Abbotsford from Hong Kong,” Lam said. “The family split up entirely. [My grandparents] went to Hong Kong and they made their way to Abbotsford, and when they found out that we were coming over, they went to one of the churches in Abbotsford and found a family to take care of us when we got there. I mean, the Canadian government would have figured that out, but [my grandfather] wanted to make sure that the people that were going to take care of us were gonna be good people. That’s what he did. We were super, super fortunate.”
At 27, Lam started the process of connecting with his family history.
“I contacted the [Portuguese] consulate in Vancouver, they contacted the hospital that I was born in in Macao, and sure enough my name was there,” he said. “I get a letter in the mail, all in Portuguese, I had no idea what it meant.”
That all happened in 2006, the year he started pharmacy school.
“I took a year of Portuguese, I enrolled in two semesters, learning how to read and write, how to understand,” he said. “Then I spent two months in Portugal, travelling all over the coast, surfing. I did some volunteer work in a pharmacy in Faro, for a few days, just to see what it was all about.”
The Portuguese media has connected with Lam’s story and a part of Portugal’s colonial history. Their country has a second representative in PyeongChang, alpine skier Arthur Hanse, whose parents emigrated from Portugal to France. Lam was selected to be the flag bearer at Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
(Article continues below)
According to The Portugal News Online, the last time Portugal sent more than one athlete to the Winter Olympics was in 1988 when its four-man bobsled team qualified. That team competed against the famous Jamaican bobsled team and finished last in the final, while Jamaica did not finish.
“I’m a united-nations individual,” Lam said. “I would say that I’m proud to have the entire heritage that I do have, the history. I’m super proud that my parents are boat people, refugees.”
The Olympic Dream
Lam is one of many who dream of representing ‘small nations’ at the Olympics: athletes who work together to build a worldwide community and inspire others to chase their dreams.
“For two and a half years, nobody really knew what I was doing,” he said. “They knew that I was skiing, that I was passionate. That was 100 percent, but there was a purpose behind it, and that purpose was to make it to the Games in 2018. And tomorrow [Jan. 22] is judgment day.”
The ‘big nations’ in nordic skiing have big solutions. From dedicated wax teams in country-specific waxing rooms to physio staff to multiple coaches, the support is total. The ‘small nations’ live in a different world, sharing wax rooms among multiple countries and relying on the wax companies and ski companies for testing.
Team Portugal has Lam, supported by coach (and Atomic ambassador) Glenn Bond.
“What we’re going to do is we are going to see if Atomic will look at skis, wax skis and get everything dialed for training days and the race day,” Lam said. “I think that’s the best route to go. They’re testing skis every day, and they know what’s going to be fast.”
Like many of his peers, Lam has qualified for one event: the 15-kilometer freestyle individual start next Friday, Feb. 16. The people who have met him on his journey will be celebrating. You can follow Lam on his website or Instagram @kequyenlam.