Venezuelan skier Adrian Solano may be the butt of the world's jokes after hapless slips and falls in the Lahti Nordic World Ski Championships last week, but the 22-year-old cook who had never seen snow and practiced the sport on wheels is delighted with his "marvelous" adventure.
In the trails of British skier Eddie The Eagle and the 1988 Jamaican bobsleigh team, epitomized in the film 'Cool Runnings,' Solano's mishaps in Finland went viral, earning him the title of the world's worst skier.
Video shows Solano immediately losing his balance when coming out of the gate, slipping over repeatedly and tripping over his skis. Yet, he is proud of his performance.
"I fell and did not give up. Not everyone gets up but I got up more than 30 times," he said in an interview two days after his return to Venezuela.
"Many people don't realize that practicing on asphalt is very different to practicing on snow because the snow has a different texture."
Back with his family in the sweltering city of Maracay where he learned to ski on wheels, Solano said he had long dreamed of competing abroad and that his friends and neighbors had helped him save for a flight to Europe ahead of the competition, giving him time to perfect his technique on snow rather than asphalt.
That flight alone was near impossible in a crisis-stricken country where many, including Solano, earn the equivalent of just a few dollars a month given an economic meltdown which has left many hungry and standing in long supermarket lines.
When Solano turned up with just 28 euros ($29.57) in cash at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport late last month, however, immigration officials did not buy that he was a world-class skier.
He was forced to return to Venezuela five days later, he said. His story caught the attention of Finnish TV personality Aleksi Valavuori who set up a crowdfunding campaign and raised more than 4,000 euros ($4,224) to pay for another flight via Madrid.
"Something had to be done," said Valavuori, speaking from the Finnish city of Turku. "I knew absolutely nothing. I'd never heard of Venezuelan skiing."
'HOLY SHIT, HE CAN'T SKI'
Valavuori tracked down Solano, dejected and back in Maracay, and told him he had a second shot at the championships.
"Aleksi was like a guardian angel," said Solano. "This was my dream."
Valavuori and an interpreter drove to Helsinki airport to collect Solano, who marveled at seeing snow for the first time.
Less than 12 hours after arriving, Solano was first out of the gate for the cross-country event.
"It was my first experience on skis on snow in my life," he said. "I was scared."
Watching from the sidelines, Valavuori began to realize something was not quite right.
"At first, I was like, 'Holy shit, he can't ski,'" said Valavuori, "but the longer it went on, the more he became a hero."
The video went viral with both endearment and harsh criticism on social media.
Some Venezuelans are fuming that he embarrassed them internationally and suspect he was promoted by the ruling Socialist Party.
They point to Instagram photos of Solano with a locally-famous leftist who dresses like late Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara in military garb and posing with members of the Party's youth movement. They also note he has no photos of himself skiing.
Solano says the photos are old and that he made it to the championships with zero help from authorities.
Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Alistair Bell.