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Originally published February 3, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified February 3, 2010 at 11:32 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Peruvian cross-country skier Roberto Carcelén reaches Olympic dream

Roberto Carcelén, who now lives in Seattle, met his wife through an online-dating service and learned cross-country skiing only about five years ago. Yet he'll be in Vancouver, B.C., later this month as Peru's first and only Winter Olympian.

Seattle Times staff columnist

History starts with a love story.

It starts with a Peruvian man falling head over skis for an American woman in cyberspace. It starts with a connection, forged through instant messaging, that bridges the 5,000 miles between Lima, Peru, and Seattle. It starts with two people, so shy they were hesitant to e-mail pictures, pecking feverishly on their laptops five hours a day for five months and realizing they shared the same favorite books, the same beliefs about family and the same no-limit style of dreaming.

History starts with love at first byte.

"When you're chatting like that, at the end of the day, you fall in love with who the person really is," Roberto Carcelén says.

"It sounds corny, but you kind of know when you've found that person," Kate Carcelén says.

We might need Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias and Whitney Houston to sing this ballad. Seldom does a corny ol' love story carry groundbreaking significance.

If he hadn't met his future wife seven years ago, Roberto Carcelén would not be on his way to Vancouver to make Olympic history. He would not be living in Seattle, or cross-country skiing, or scheduling an interview with NBC's "Today." He would not be a pioneer, the first person from Peru to compete in the Winter Olympics.

We all could use his brand of destiny.

"It worked out well for us," Carcelén said, grinning. "I hear a lot of people who date online, it didn't work out well for them. Lucky me."

Olympians typically don't start skiing at age 34. Then again, you don't find The One on lavalife.com.

Carcelén always lives with the best intentions and, it seems, the best results. At first, he went online seven years ago because he planned to travel from Peru to California for a marathon and he wanted to meet active Americans. He found Kate Clement, saw parts of himself in her inviting personality and love for the outdoors, and he forgot about that marathon.

After all those instant-messaging sessions, they decided to meet in Miami in March 2003. Carcelén stayed in the United States for the next two months to be with Kate. He then returned to Lima, handed his printing business over to his family and moved to Seattle. The couple married that July.

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About five years ago, Kate introduced Roberto to skiing. He loves surfing and running. In his 20s, he was an elite Peruvian surfer, but the water in Seattle is too cold for him. When Kate likened skiing to surfing on frozen water, Roberto became intrigued.

"It was hilarious at first," said Roberto, who now is 39 and lives in Leschi. "I probably fell every 40 feet. People looked at me, laughed and said, 'Ah, it's your first time.' "

After a few months, though, he showed remarkable improvement. His technique remained poor, but he possessed an incredible will.

Kent Murdoch, a local skier who now helps coach Carcelén, remembers the Peruvian competing in a race four years ago. He was raw yet fascinating.

"He was doing the right motion, but it was not a very refined motion," Murdoch recalled. "Most people who don't learn to ski as a child have a very difficult time as an adult. But his fitness level was really, really high. He kind of willed himself up hills."

Even then, Carcelén had a crystallized vision: He wanted to represent Peru in the Winter Olympics. He watched the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, on television and started envisioning history. Peru has mountains and snow, but children don't grow up snowboarding or bobsledding or skiing.

One problem, Carcelén said, is the snow is at too high of an elevation.

"It's pretty crazy up there," he said. "I don't think cross-country skiing will work. That will kill you."

Another problem: Carcelén believes Peruvians can be too laid back.

"We take a different approach to life," he said. "We kind of like living life in a good way. With sports, we're not like other cultures. We like food, wine and partying. We have an active community, but we like all things."

Four snowboarders from Peru were supposed to compete in the Games in Turin four years ago, but they failed to register for their events and could not participate.

Because his country had little experience with even Winter Olympics logistics, the challenge would be more than just an athletic one for Carcelén.

He and Kate have a 2-year-old daughter, Francesca. She doesn't fully comprehend what her father is about to do. She doesn't know she was born in the middle of an improbable quest that already has cost the family about $60,000. But whenever Francesca sees skiers on television, she's overcome with joy.

"Papa!" she exclaims.

Papa is the real deal now. He has gone from local act to international competitor. To qualify for the Olympics, he had to meet the standards of the International Ski Federation for the 15-kilometer freestyle event. He had to earn 300 points or less in five sanctioned races. The point system is calculated by how close a skier comes to the first-place finisher. Being within 25 percent earns 300 points. The closer you finish, the lower your score.

This Olympic bid took Carcelén to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Czech Republic. He qualified two months ago at an event at Silver Star Mountain Resort in British Columbia. He didn't celebrate too much, however.

The day before that race, he found out his mother has an advanced form of liver cancer.

He barely could focus during the qualifying race. He had no energy. His dream, four years in the making, felt inconsequential. He earned his Olympic berth that day mostly because he didn't know what else to do.

"That was a big bomb for us," Carcelén said. "My mom is one of my main supporters. Knowing she's been hit with a disease, it hits me, too. I couldn't take it. The only thing I could hold onto was that I wanted to make the Olympics to make her smile."

Soon after the race, he flew home to Peru for a week. His mother is doing OK, he said. Just OK. She was hospitalized for a month and caught pneumonia twice. She's now undergoing her second round of chemotherapy.

Her struggles have reminded Carcelén that he's competing for more than himself, for more than his wife and daughter, for more than his entire family even.

This is for Peru.

His country is worth all those travel expenses. It's worth all those trips to Snoqualmie Pass. It's worth the extra day-care costs for Francesca and the price of equipment and the effort required to train four hours a day.

Carcelén, a marketing consultant who also owns a Peruvian company (Inca Runners) that gives running tours through the Andes for athletic tourists, isn't focused on the sacrifices. He's fixated on the dream.

"In Peru, 25 million people will see the benefit of this," he said.

Kate Carcelén, a Microsoft manager who also travels often, fully supports her husband. She grew up loving the Olympics. She was hooked while watching Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 and 1980 Summer Games. Kate loves her husband because they have the same passion for a good challenge. She refused to stop her husband from chasing this one.

"There have been times when we've wondered, 'Oh, my God, can we deal with this?' " she said. "We always come back to, 'Of course.' "

Peru's first Winter Olympian helped design his uniform. Roberto Carcelén called Eddie Bauer and asked for help. He went over certain Olympic requirements, gave his input and left the rest to the Bellevue-based clothing company.

A 5-foot-8 wisp of an athlete, he grins when imagining how he'll look with "Peru" stitched on his clothes.

"I don't want to give away how it looks," he said. "You'll see soon. It's very simple, but I like it. I have so much pride."

His pride won't lead him to the medal stand, but that's not the goal, anyway. From amorous instant messenger to skiing novice to unlikely Olympian, his journey already has been lined with gold.

History starts with a love story.

On Thursday, Carcelén and Francesca will pick up Kate from the airport (she's been in Toyko on business) and drive three hours to Vancouver, B.C. In eight days, Peru's Winter Olympian will walk in the Opening Ceremony.

He hopes to carry the red-and-white Peruvian flag with one hand and his daughter with the other, the solitary Olympian, the leader of Team Roberto, the smitten pioneer.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277

or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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