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By Michael Phillips

Yeshareg Demisse works two jobs at The Nile restaurant. She’s cooking up Ethiopian food for nearby VCU students, but she’s also helping her son realize his Olympic dreams.

On Monday in Vancouver, Robel Teklemariam will compete for Ethiopia in the 15-kilometer cross country skiing event.

This will be his second Olympics but the first with his mother in attendance. To qualify, he traveled the world on a shoestring budget, chasing down qualifying races as he lugged his skis across Europe on a train. His goal is to inspire a nation of citizens — most of whom haven’t seen snow.

“What he’s proving is that when you put your heart to it, it doesn’t matter where you were born,” Demisse said.

Tonight, he’ll carry the Ethiopian flag as part of the opening ceremonies.

“I have to,” he said. “I’m the only one.”

. . .

Yes, Teklemariam has seen the movie “Cool Runnings,” and yes, he understands the comparisons.

Like the Jamaican bobsledders, he’s from a warm-weather nation, is the first from his country to compete in the Winter Games and has long dreadlocks. He adds that what the Jamaicans did in 1988 opened the doors for other nations to compete.

But he’s also different, as he’s competing in a sport he’s always loved and has trained in for years.

He was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, but his family moved to New York when he was young because his mother took a job at the United Nations. While there, he went to a school in upstate New York where skiing was taught.

“The ski coach said that the moment they put him on skis, he just fell in love with it,” Demisse said. “At that time, I wasn’t feeling too worried, since he didn’t do it that often — or I wasn’t aware that he was.”

She said that she’s fine when her son goes cross-country skiing, like he will Monday, but the more dangerous alpine skiing still scares her.

From New York, Teklemariam moved to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, going to the boarding school so he could improve his skiing. He became good enough that he was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of New Hampshire. After graduating, he took a job with Club Med resorts, working as a ski instructor.

He’s traveled the world for that job, working the slopes in Japan, Austria and the United States. Most clients, he said, are regulars and are used to seeing him, but occasionally he’ll shock somebody. A couple from Austria stopped at the top of the mountain and asked to take a picture with him, saying their friends would never believe an Ethiopian led them down a double black diamond ski run.

During his time as a trainer, Teklemariam began to pursue his dream of skiing in the Olympics.