Ailene Voisin

El Dorado skier qualifies for the Olympics. Why he went to Mexico to do it

Robby Franco on representing Mexico in Winter Olympics

The Northern Californian learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe. He has family from both Mexico and the U.S.
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The Northern Californian learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe. He has family from both Mexico and the U.S.

Robby Franco thought about it long and hard, and as we have learned, these skiing/snowboarding acrobats have minds of their own. So when he recovered from doing the splits – he had one ski in Mexico, one ski in America – the El Dorado High School graduate decided to take his talents south of the border.

 
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The one-time Cougar speedster will be one of four skiers competing for Mexico next month in the Pyeongchang Olympics.

While that sounds more than a little crazy, it also is a neighborly thing to do. One ski glove scratches the other, so to speak. After Franco failed to qualify for Team USA’s 2014 squad in slopestyle, he went with the more favorable odds and turned his attention to the 2018 Games and growing the sport as a descendant of Mexican immigrants.

On Monday, he was named to the Mexican ski team that, according to persistent, if unconfirmed reports, could expand to accommodate Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, a slalom legend who has competed in six Olympics and was Mexico’s only representative at the Games four years ago – at age 55.

“I want people to know that skiing is not just a white person’s sport,” Franco said after a casual training session Thursday at the Kaiser Permanente Sports Medicine Center inside Golden 1 Center. “I thought if I could be a spotlight to encourage other athletes from Mexico, to learn to ski, to pursue this if the Olympics is your dream. Do what I did. Follow it.”

But what a wild and crazy trip. The youngest of four siblings born in a ski- and soccer-obsessed family, Franco grew up in a region that produced one of America’s most celebrated skiers and arguably the sport’s most enduring tragedy/mysteries. The late Spider Sabich, another product of El Dorado High who competed in the downhill in the 1968 Olympics and was a fixture on the U.S. Ski Team and World Cup circuit, was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances in Aspen, Colo., in 1976.

Franco, 24, has his own independent streak, though it in no way resembles the undisciplined, hard-partying Hollywood habits of Kyburz native Sabich.

Besides eschewing the snowboarding craze to pursue the outer boundaries of skiing, Franco was something of a pied piper, according to then-Cougars coach Dick Perry. After the team collected the gates following the morning practices at Sierra-at-Tahoe, his gifted skier often ditched afternoon sessions and led teammates to the terrain park.

“Robby always took three sets of skis with him,” Perry said. “One for slalom and giant slalom, and another one for the park. The kids kind of flocked to him. They would ski the bumps, go off into deep powder, jump off 35- to 40-foot ice cliffs. At first I said, ‘We’re not doing that.’ But then when I watched them, they were having so much fun.”

Franco, says Perry, was something else. Stronger and more agile than most of his teammates, and routinely the last person left on the mountain, his array of tricks – grabs, flips, rotations – and amplitude were dizzying, as was his knack for safely snapping his head around and mentally charting his landing spot.

But back to that wild and crazy ride to the Olympic team. He offered details in both English and Spanish about his adventure: The move to Colorado to train and turn professional; frequent visits home to join his father on construction projects, virtually everything from roofing, scaffolding, landscaping to painting houses; training sessions throughout last summer on rugged gravel hills near snow-starved Mexico City while waiting to hear whether he qualified as a member of the nation’s Olympic team – a process that began with a visit and impassioned plea almost three years ago.

“After not getting a chance in 2014, it was like, ‘You know what? If they’re not going to have me, I’m going to go family, I’m going to go roots, I’m going to go culture,’ ” said Franco, who lives in Cameron Park. “But it’s been hard, financially especially.”

The downside to this exciting, nomadic life, of course, is that it comes at a cost. Unlike his higher-profile peers who employ powerful agents and have major sponsorships and endorsement deals, Franco pays for all his flight and accommodations as he tours the World Cup circuit. Before securing his Olympic qualification with a late-December burst – two top-30 finishes and maintaining a top-30 ranking – he blew through his savings and barely hung onto his precious frequent flier miles.

“The Mexican Olympic Committee pays for our flight and our rooms,” said Franco, who accompanied by his father, George, will spend a week in Mexico City before traveling to South Korea. “But the whole family is coming to Korea. I have been saving my points and miles for years, because this is so special. I wanted everyone there.”

He set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the costs of his Olympic journey.

“I’ll take anything,” he said, laughing, “and I want to come home with a medal.”

More than a dozen California natives will be competing in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea starting Feb. 9.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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