| USA TODAY SPORTS9:15 a.m. EST Feb. 19, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea —You know about the Nigerian and Jamaican bobsled teams. You’ve probably heard about the Tongan and Mexican cross country skiers. But did you miss the Puerto Rican Alpine skier?
A day after his performance, it’s still sinking in.
Charles Flaherty, 17, competed in the men’s giant slalom Sunday and became the first athlete in 20 years at the Winter Olympics to represent Puerto Rico. Where the coldest temperature on record is 39 degrees, and a single snowflake has yet to fall.
“Some of my friends have never seen snow,’’ Flaherty told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re like, ‘Man, you’re crazy. It’s cold out there.’”
Flaherty’s bid to represent Puerto Rico was put on hold after Hurricane Maria pounded the island in September 2017. He gained approval in December only after it was clear his family expected no financial support from a government struggling to pay for the hurricane-related recovery expenses.
In addition to his parents and younger brother, Flaherty’s rooting section here included David Vasquez, a Puerto Rican who said he drove five hours from the U.S. Army base where he’s stationed. After watching Flaherty finish 73rd and a whopping 38.1 seconds behind the gold medalist, Valdez and the skier held the Puerto Rican flag aloft while posing for a photo.
“I have to see my beautiful flag over here in Korea in the Winter Olympics,’’ Vasquez told USA TODAY Sports. “This opens a lot of things for our island. I think this is a big opportunity for us.’’
The skier who made it possible was actually born in Ohio. Flaherty’s father, a commodities trader, moved the family to Puerto Rico about eight years ago for work.
Flaherty did not begin training until after the 2014 Winter Games, during which he got Olympic fever. He was able to qualify by meeting the island’s three-year residency rule and accumulating the necessary points in international competition.
Handling classwork online, he lives and trains for half the year in Colorado, and he’s been there since September. His family evacuated before Hurricane Maria hit, but he plans to return to the island this spring.
No members of the Puerto Rican press were on hand to watch him here, but an Olympic official from the island Betsmara Cruz activated the recording device on her phone when she greeted Flaherty after the race.
“You’re the face of pride of the island,’’ she said. “What do you have to say about that?”
“It’s an amazing honor just to be the first good thing to come out of the island since the hurricane,’’ he said.
Antonio Colon, head of the Puerto Rico Winter Sports Federation — an organization that Flaherty’s father helped form — marveled at the sight.
“At the beginning, people were very reluctant,’’ he said. “Like, we don’t have snow.’’
Then Colon shared the details of a chance encounter he had last week with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
Recalled Colon: “He said ‘Puerto Rico, welcome to the Games. It’s good to have you guys back.’ ”