Roberto Carcelen had it all planned out. He would arrive in Sochi and race against the world’s top cross-country skiers for the second time in four years, making history again as one of the only Peruvians to ever compete in the Winter Olympics. He’d use the accomplishment to help create momentum and attention for his new foundation that used technology to give underprivileged kids in Peru a chance to succeed in life.
But just 10 days before the big race, disaster struck.
Carcelen, a Microsoft contractor who lives in Seattle, was training in Austria when he came down a steep, icy hill. The skier tripped and hit the mountain hard, instantly breaking two ribs. He felt immense pain and knew something wasn’t right.
Hours later inside a nearby hospital, a doctor recommended that Carcelen pack his bags and head back to Seattle. The injuries were serious and he needed to immobilize his upper body in order to recover.
“I had all these plans to get to the Olympics, cross the finish line, and build a foundation,” Carcelen said. “But now I was in pain and didn’t think that was going to happen.”
Carcelen left the doctor’s office and headed to his hotel room. He was devastated. This was supposed to be the big moment for his foundation and his fellow Peruvians. Now, it was all over.
Carcelen then went through what he describes as “an emotional crisis.” On one hand, maybe people would understand that he was injured and had to quit. Maybe he could still leave Sochi without competing, without crossing the finish line, and still give back to his home country.
But what if he did the opposite? What if he went against what everyone was telling him to do, and instead fight through the pain to finish the race — not for himself, but for everyone watching in Peru. It could become a story of perseverance and determination that could inspire people back home, and children in particular.
“I always felt that public figures had an obligation of giving back, and not using all that power is shameful,” Carcelen said. “I was in that position. The country was giving me an opportunity to represent them, and I could use the exposure and momentum to give back. That’s the right thing to do, right?”
A LATE BLOOMER
Roberto Carcelen is not your typical Olympian.
The 44-year-old arrived in the U.S. back in 2003 to meet a woman he’d met online who shared his love for the outdoors and seemed to match his personality and values. Carcelen would soon marry Kate Clement, who brought her new husband to Seattle where she worked as a marketer for Microsoft.
A few years after their wedding, Kate convinced Roberto, then 34, to try cross country skiing. He was always an athlete, having been an elite surfer in Peru and a triathlon competitor. But this new sport was unlike anything he’d seen in South America.
“We got to the mountain and the first thing I asked was, ‘where’s the chairlift?'” Carcelen remembers. “I had never been in snow before, and the only idea of skiing I had was going up and down.”
Kate taught her husband the basics of cross country skiing, and despite falling “like 20 times” that day, he was hooked.
“It was very physically demanding and I liked it,” Carcelen said. “We went back to Seattle and went straight to the shop. They asked me if I wanted to rent again, and I said ‘No, I’m going to buy a pair.'”
The next day and the following weekend, Carcelen and his wife were back on the mountain. After just a few sessions, Carcelen was zooming past the same people who had laughed when he kept falling just two weeks earlier.
He entered a few local races and finished among the top skiers. That’s when someone told him to seriously consider competing at the Winter Olympics, especially given that so few South Americans participated.
“That planted a little seed in me,” Carcelen said. “Maybe this was something I could pull off. It was almost like a startup — you had a vision and a passion for something, and you believed you could change the world by doing that.”
PURSUING THE OLYMPIC DREAM
By 2007, Carcelen was consulting for Microsoft while also operating a business that offered guided running tours near Machu Picchu in Peru. That year, he and Kate also had their first child, a baby daughter named Francesca.
A lot was going on in life, but Carcelen continued his Olympic pursuit. No Peruvian had ever competed in the Winter Games, and he was determined to be the first.
Carcelen spent the next two-and-a-half years training and traveling around the world to compete in professional races in order to qualify for the Olympics. The pursuit was expensive and time-consuming, but Kate and Roberto found a way.
“We were juggling many things at the same time,” he said. “It wasn’t easy, but it’s definitely something you can do. If you have the energy and passion, you can organize your life around it.”
Carcelen eventually made it to Vancouver in 2010, where he carried the flag for Peru at the Opening Ceremony. For the first time, his home country was represented among the world’s top winter sport athletes.
“It was a great feeling,” he recalled.
Carcelen finished the 15-kilometer cross-country race in 94th place, but his performance wasn’t nearly as important as the journey and what impact he’d made. By the time Carcelen returned to Seattle, the Olympian decided that he wanted to use his newfound fame as a way to help people in Peru.
“I started thinking about launching a foundation,” he said. “I wanted to use all that momentum to generate something on behalf of the less fortunate in Peru, because that’s where I came from.”
Four years later, Carcelen qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He had laid the groundwork for his foundation, and crossing the finish line in his second-straight Olympic Games would be the springboard for his new charitable effort.
But with his ribs broken, bruised, and battered after that nasty fall 10 days before the big race in Sochi, Carcelen faced a difficult dilemma: Take the doctor’s advice and go home, or power through the injuries and show children in Peru that anything is possible if you persevere through adversity.
CROSSING THE FINISH LINE
After the training accident, Carcelen’s ribs were so mangled that he could not sleep at night. But despite what the doctor said and despite the risk of falling again — which could have ended his skiing and athletic career for good — Carcelen decided to stay in Sochi and compete.
Unable to train immediately after leaving the hospital, Carcelen strapped on snow shoes and walked the entire race course to scope out every sharp turn and every steep slope. In order to prevent another fall, he memorized each foot of the track and made a mental note of where he’d face difficulty, particularly since his upper body movement was now limited.
Carcelen spent the next few days visualizing the course in his head, breaking the race into small pieces. When it was time to compete, Carcelen felt prepared. But as he started skiing, the pain forced him to stop numerous times on the course to stretch the right side of his rib cage.
“The Olympic course was so demanding and dangerous,” Carcelen explained. “If I fell just once, I was pretty sure I couldn’t get up again and finish the race.”
But Carcelen’s preparation, grit, and perseverance helped him power through the course. As he made his way down the final turns, Carcelen noticed a spectator with the Peru flag. He snagged it, hoisted the flag in the air with one arm, and continued racing toward the finish line.
By this point, Carcelen was the last competitor remaining. It had already been ten minutes since the second-to-last skier completed the course.
“It was the last lap, and I was thinking, ‘man, I can pull this off and I can finish,'” Carcelen recalled. “The last turn was a really difficult, sharp downhill turn. But if I could do this, it was going to be great.”
As he approached the finish line, the spectators cheered Carcelen on. He also had two fellow racers waiting for him at the end: Gold medalist Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who completed the course nearly 30 minutes prior, and Nepal’s Dachhiri Sherpa, the second-to-last finisher.
Carcelen wasn’t supposed to be here. He didn’t even know what cross country skiing was until age 34. His doctors told him to go back home after seeing his injuries.
But there he was, gliding toward the finish line, hoisting that red and white flag in the air, inspiring his fellow Peruvians who were watching on TV back home.
This was truly an Olympic moment.
“Those guys gave me a hug, but I said, hold on, I have broken ribs,” Carcelen joked.
Just as he envisioned in that hotel room, the Roberto Carcelen story turned into a tale of no limits — a story about a man accomplishing a goal for something far greater than himself.
The immediate response from Carcelen’s achievement was, as he says, “insane.” Emails and messages flowed in by the thousands — the way Carcelen battled on the world’s biggest stage really resonated with people in Peru.
“The reaction and sincerity from so many people was pretty spectacular,” he said. “That gave me a clear path of what the foundation needed to look like, and how I could help a lot of people.”
Created earlier this year, the Roberto Carcelen Foundation teaches children in Latin America computer science and provides access to education that may have previously been unavailable.
“The target group we have is really poor people,” said Marcelo Freire, co-founder of the foundation. “They don’t even have access to basic services. We know that if you give these kids the gift of learning how to code, and combine that with the values of goal achieving from sports, you’re giving them a formula for success.”
There was a key moment after the Olympics when the foundation traveled to the slums of Peru to speak with children and their families. They asked a little girl what she wanted to do when she grew up and were met with a blank stare.
“She hadn’t even thought about it,” Freire recalled. “We are trying to give these kids a role model and a leader they can follow and say, ‘if Roberto was able to do it, why can’t I?’ It’s very simple.”
The foundation opened up its first computer lab in Lima this past March where students are already learning programming and English skills for free as part of a 6-month daily training course taught by developer volunteers and two native U.S. instructors.
“You should see their faces,” Carcelen said of the kids. “They are amazed to see something that was not even close to them in the past 100 years.”
There are currently 47 students at the academy in Lima, 31 of which are girls. The foundation wants to end 2015 with 100 kids, and open another office in Quito, Ecuador — Freire’s hometown — in 2016.
The idea is to prepare kids for the local workforce, have them provide off-shore services, or keep them within the foundation to teach future students. It’s to create an ecosystem of opportunity to children who could previously only dream about becoming computer scientists.
“Getting hurt and finishing was best thing that could ever happen to me,” Carcelen says today. “We are seeing it right now with the foundation impacting a lot of lives.”