Roberto Carcelen became the first Peruvian to participate in the winter Olympics by completing the 15 kilometer freestyle cross-country skiing event at Vancouver in 2010. He followed that up in 2014 at Sochi in the 15 kilometer classical race. Carcelen originally retired after Sochi, but a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease inspired him to set his sights on Beijing. He plans on using the media attention from his qualification attempt to raise awareness and funding to help combat this debilitating disease.
As a skier from a non-skiing nation, Carcelen’s Olympic participation has always been more about ambassadorship than medal contention. Carcelen is a gifted runner who learned the sport of cross-country skiing while living in Seattle, Washington. His purpose in going to the games was to help increase exposure of winter sports in South America, and to give Peru the opportunity of inclusion on the world stage. That being said, Carcelen still had to meet rigorous standards of elite competition in order to qualify for the games. These included racing and placing well in cross-country skiing events sanctioned by the sport’s governing body.
It is a special thing for any athlete to carry the flag of their country in the opening ceremonies, and it carries an enormous responsibility. Olympic athletes are in the spotlight of the world media, and the way they conduct themselves is a reflection on their nation.
In 2014, while on a training session, Carcelen fell and broke his ribs. His doctors encouraged him to withdraw from his event because racing would subject him to considerable pain. But the idea of exiting did not sit well with Carcelen. His objective was not fulfilled by marching with the other athletes in the opening and closing ceremonies. He had come to the Olympics to ensure the Peruvian flag would be represented within the historical record of those that competed. In the end, he elected to attempt to race.
There are many communities that form within the Olympic village. One community is comprised of the athletes of specific disciplines. The other cross-country skiers knew Carcelen’s story, and they showed him tremendous support when he made the decision to line up to participate despite his injury.
As Carcelen approached the finish line of his grueling ordeal, a spectator handed him a Peruvian flag which he waved with pride. He crossed the finish line to a roar of approval from the crowd and was surprised to find gold medalist Dario Cologna of Switzerland waiting there to congratulate him on his courageous race. The image of the Olympic champion embracing Carcelen caused a media sensation and became one of the feel good stories of the Sochi Olympics.
In the intervening years, Carcelen has used his notoriety to help bring technology and education to poorly funded areas in Peru. He is a gifted and inspiring public speaker, and does his charitable work through the Roberto Carcelen Foundation.
It was during a speaking event in 2016 that Carcelen noticed a shaking in his leg that he couldn’t seem to control. After a misdiagnosis of stress related causes, Carcelen was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2019.
Carcelen initially attempted to treat the condition with medication, but was dissatisfied with side effects and other limitations. He found that exercise is often used as a treatment for Parkinson’s, and with his Olympic background, determined that setting his sights on Beijing, while battling the disease, was the kind of challenge that appealed to him.
Carcelen keeps an online journal about his progress on his web page WinByLosing.org. A documentary film entitled Carcelen is also in production in New York and Palm Beach, Florida.
Roberto Carcelen is already the first Peruvian to compete at the winter Olympics. If he succeeds in his next challenge, he’ll be the first to compete at the Olympics with Parkinson’s disease. He is supporting the Parkinson’s community with the knowledge and skills he developed as a successful Olympic athlete. He lives by the motto todo es possible, and continues to confront his challenges with the dignity and responsibility of one who has been his nation’s flag-bearer at the Olympic games.
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