They're Alone Against the World

Prawat Nagvajara hobbled down an icy path in an empty white field, dirt staining his bodysuit, a smile on his face.

During his 15-kilometer jaunt through a snowstorm, the cross-country skier from Thailand had fallen five times, broken a pole and been consistently moved off the path by faster skiers.

But at least he didn't finish last.

"I passed the Costa Rican skier. He is last, I'm sure of it," Nagvajara said.

Later, Arturo Kinch slid along the same path, his eyes cloudy, his spandex-covered legs quivering.

He is the Costa Rican skier. He also had a lousy day. He went tumbling out of his skis at the starting line. But he saw things differently.

"Yeah, the Thai skier passed me, but then he crashed," Kinch said. "That's when I passed him back, and he finished last."

Which man lost Friday? The answer is, neither.

How can you attach "loser" to someone who just skied for an hour in a blizzard with a sun-drenched country strapped to his back?

How can "last place" apply to anyone who had to carry his flag, his bags and a big loan just to be here in the first place?

Nagvajara and Kinch are among several one-person Winter Olympic contingents who finished at the bottom of the race but live at the top of the torch.

"My message is, 'Dream big, man,' " said Ethiopia's Robel Teklemariam, who finished 84th out of 97 as icicles formed on his dreadlocks. "Because you just never know."

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How small is the Costa Rican contingent?

Among the group that marched into Olympic Stadium with flag bearer Kinch during the opening ceremony were his doctor, his chiropractor and his fiancee.

"It was awesome," said Rosemary Meyer, Kinch's fiancee.

And, of course, the president of the Costa Rican Olympic Federation was there.

"That's me," Kinch said.

How inexperienced is the Thailand contingent?

Its only member, Nagvajara, started skiing only six years ago, after having watched Phillip Boit, who with Henry Bitok had skied for Kenya in Nagano.

"Watching him, I thought, 'I can help people believe they can do anything,' " Nagvajara said.

He was given permission to form the Olympic team, thanks to a letter written to the Thai government six years ago by his aunt.

She told them he was a good guy and would represent the country well.

She didn't say he would win. Good thing. In his first Olympics four years ago, he was so slow in the 30-kilometer, he was pulled off the course.

"In the beginning, I tried to teach myself," he said. "Big mistake."

He has since learned by hanging out in the Pennsylvania mountains, where they don't see many Thai cross-country skiers, but that doesn't stop him.

"There's only so much I can do," he said.

One-man bands competing in a world of giant symphonies, there's indeed only so much noise these guys can make.

For Kinch and Nagvajara, one clear note every four years is enough.

It's a note that reminds folks, size is only a state of mind.

Kinch, 49, is an airline customer-service representative from Denver who grew up in Costa Rica before going to the United States for college. A soccer player, he started skiing only for winter conditioning.

"I never thought of myself as an oddball," he said. "These are what the Olympics are all about."

Nagvajara, 48, grew up in Thailand before going to the U.S. for college, and now is a computer-engineering professor at Drexel University in Pennsylvania.

"Just being here is enough," he said.

It's a note that reminds folks, the truth of that statement is priceless.

"Cost me about $10,000 to get here," Nagvajara said.

It was harder for Kinch, who has never received a penny from Costa Rica.

Twenty minutes before flying here, he didn't know if he had enough money for the trip.

He was taking an unpaid leave from his job. He had spent most of the last year tending to his dying father in an Orange County hospice. The funds weren't there.

At the last moment, on his cellphone, he was able to leverage some stock options into a loan that will cover his expenses.

"Got on the plane with 10 minutes to spare," he said.

This is, believe it or not, his fifth Winter Olympics since he founded his country's Olympic Committee in 1978.

In two of the Games, he competed in Alpine and cross-country skiing.

In none of those Games has he ever finished high enough to even list on his Olympic biography.

"This is a whole different level here," he said.

He missed three Olympics while going through marital problems and an eventual divorce, yet stayed in good enough shape to return for Salt Lake City in 2002.

"I wanted to prove to her that she was more important to me than skiing," he said of his ex-wife. "But then she remarried, which meant she didn't agree, so I came back to the sport."

Well, sort of.

Because he spent all of his free time caring for his father in the last year, Kinch barely trained outside of the five required international races.

When his father died two weeks ago, Kinch was at his side, reminding him of his journey.

"I told him, 'Dad, I requalified,' and I know it meant a lot to him," he said. "He knew I had never given up."

As he told this story with teary eyes Friday afternoon, the blinding snow slowed, the winds picked up, and his shivering worsened.

"Shouldn't you go inside and warm up?" he was asked.

Arturo Kinch was standing behind an Olympic finish line, talking to someone about his dream for the first time -- and last time.

He wasn't about to stop.

"I'm fine right here," he said.

So was Prawat Nagvajara, who huddled under an overcoat and continued talking even as he slipped along the ice.

"It was tough, but I did it," he kept saying.

So which one finished last?

Let's just say they were officially the final two finishers, ending nearly 30 minutes behind the brave, strong, glamorous Olympic champion.

Whoever that was.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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