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Jamaican skier has Olympic dream

In this photo taken on Dec. 14, 2009, skier Errol Kerr, who will represent Jamaica in the Vancouver Olympics, starts on a practice run after his mother Catherine Kerr, right, released the starting gate he built at his home in Truckee, Calif. Most Jamaicans have never seen snow, but a young skier will be wearing the tropical island's colors to Vancouver's slopes in 2010, and could bring home the Caribbean's first winter Olympic medal. Kerr, born to an American mother and a Jamaican father, grew up a dual citizen between the Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada, where he moved with his mother as a child, and Westmoreland, Jamaica's westernmost parish. In this photo taken on Dec. 14, 2009, skier Errol Kerr, who will represent Jamaica in the Vancouver Olympics, starts on a practice run after his mother Catherine Kerr, right, released the starting gate he built at his home in Truckee, Calif. Most Jamaicans have never seen snow, but a young skier will be wearing the tropical island's colors to Vancouver's slopes in 2010, and could bring home the Caribbean's first winter Olympic medal. Kerr, born to an American mother and a Jamaican father, grew up a dual citizen between the Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada, where he moved with his mother as a child, and Westmoreland, Jamaica's westernmost parish. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
By Juliana Barbassa
Associated Press Writer / December 23, 2009

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TRUCKEE, Calif.—Some might say he's Usain Bolt on skis. Not surprisingly, though, when Errol Kerr tells people he's a member of the Jamaican Winter Olympic team, most pull out the bobsled one-liners.

"When people hear of a Jamaican skier, they expect dreads hanging out the back of my helmet and a smoke stream following me down the mountain," Kerr said.

This is no joke, though.

Less than two years since Bolt brought world records and world renown to the island nation with his sprinting, Jamaica's latest winter star is hoping to put his country on the map in the new Olympic sport of skicross.

"It's more than just a country," Kerr said. "It's in my blood, in my DNA."

Born to an American mother and a Jamaican father, Kerr grew up a dual citizen between Lake Tahoe, where he moved with his mother as a child, and Westmoreland, Jamaica's westernmost parish.

He has felt most at home on the slopes since he was a kid watching a ski race on TV.

He rolls with the jokes, most of which inevitably draw comparisons to the Jamaican bobsled team, a fan favorite in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary that inspired the comedy "Cool Runnings".

In fact, one of Kerr's sponsors is a beverage company called Cool Runnings.

"There's no running away from it," Kerr said of the bobsled team. "I embrace it. They laid the groundwork."

But while the bobsled team was initially a novelty, Kerr enters the Vancouver Olympics -- his first -- as a serious contender.

The hybrid style of skicross racing draws on Kerr's extensive background in Alpine skiing. It also makes good use of the rougher edge he picked up in motocross and BMX, and the 200-plus pounds he has to throw around, said Jonny Moseley, an Olympic gold medalist who will be NBC's commentator for the freestyle events -- moguls, aerials and skicross -- in Vancouver.

"Errol's got a good shot at the Olympics," Moseley said. "He's cut out for the sport."

Kerr's background helps in an event that is rowdier than Alpine ski racing, where one athlete races against the clock. In skicross, four competitors speed down a steep, winding the course together, taking on banked turns, berms and each other along the way. The first one across the finish line wins.

"It's very pure, very simple that way," said Moseley. "But there's a lot of contact, a lot of strategy and jockeying."

To viewers, it is dynamic, and anyone who has raced buddies down the mountain can relate to the scramble. Snowboardcross drew big crowds and good ratings when it made its Olympic debut at the 2006 Turin games. Adding skicross will continue to draw younger athletes and fans, said Joseph Fitzgerald, the International Ski Federation's freestyle race director.

"You watch it on TV and it pops, there's so much activity," said Fitzgerald, speaking from San Candido, Italy, site of the ISF World Cup Skicross series.

Kerr is taking nothing for granted. He spends his days training at Alpine Meadows, a resort at Lake Tahoe that has sponsored him, and in his mother's front yard, where he built a starting gate with the same specifications as the one in Vancouver and rigged up his own snowmaking machine.

His mother, Catherine Kerr, once a ski racer herself, stands behind the practice gate, counting down: "Racers ready ... Attention ... "

She lets the gate fly. Errol Kerr springs out, strides. He plants his poles once, and crouches for the first tabletop jump, staying tight and close to the ground. Another stride, another jump. Then he circles back, and goes through it all again ... and again ... and again, shaving off the precious fractions of a second that could land him ahead of the pack in Vancouver.

Errol Kerr's late father never strapped on a pair of skis, Errol's mother said. It would have moved him to see how far his son has come, and to know that he is competing for the island, she said. Kerr said part of his dream was always to race for his father's country -- under the black, green and yellow flag of Jamaica.

"To be able to see Errol grab a hold of that and say let's take it a step further, put Jamaica on the map of skiing, it's beautiful," she said. "He would just be so proud."