- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - The red-and-white flag of Malta painted on the left cheek of giant slalom skier Elise Pellegrin was nearly washed away by the rain.

The memory of her first Olympic race? Now that couldn’t be smudged.

Pellegrin was among a large contingent of lower-ranked skiers in the 90-racer field who really had no illusion of winning a rain-soaked event on Tuesday, instead just interested in soaking up the Olympic experience. Pellegrin finished the two-run giant slalom 36.25 seconds behind winner Tina Maze of Slovenia - and still celebrated.

“I’m really proud,” the 22-year-old said. “I hope Malta is proud of me, too.”

Behind the big names such as Maze, Anna Fenninger of Austria and American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, there were some lesser-known skiers with interesting stories:

- Jasmine Campbell of the Virgin Islands getting money from the International Olympic Committee.

- Emily Bamford of Australia giving up horseback riding to concentrate on skiing.

- Professional musician Vanessa-Mae swapping her violin for skis and using her father’s surname, Vanakorn, to compete for Thailand.

- Alessia Afi Dipol switching from India to Togo for the Olympics.

“Until yesterday, I watched (these skiers) on the TV and now I’m here with them,” said Dipol, who represented India until last year. “It’s really strange.”

Of the 67 skiers finishing a second run through the soft snow, almost half wound up more than 10 seconds behind Maze.

For quite a few, though, time hardly mattered.

“Obviously, there is a difference in skill,” said Campbell, who draws a stipend from the IOC to help with her ski career. “But I’ve had a few conversations with a couple of (the elite skiers) and they are such kind, generous, welcoming people. They make you feel at ease, not nearly as intimidated as I probably should be.”

There are those who might argue that these lower-ranked skiers don’t belong in the field. Not at the Olympics, anyway, maybe at a World Cup race.

After all, each country is allowed a maximum of four competitors in a race, which hinders some of the power nations that have talent-rich rosters and must leave medal-contending skiers on the sidelines. Take, for instance, Austria, which didn’t enter Nicole Hosp, who’s won two medals in Sochi.

“The U.S. has the same problem in 100-meter track and field,” women’s race director Atle Skaardal explained. “They probably have hundreds which are better than the next one from Norway, at least, from my country.”

Some of the skiers in the field were the first to compete for their country. That was the case for Pellegrin and why she painted the flag on her face.

“The conditions were not really good but I have a smile,” she said.

Growing up on a farm, Bamford thought for sure she would be an Olympian, only in dressage because horses were her hobby. Then, her parents took her skiing and she was hooked. Bamford attended Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where she almost became a snowboarder.

“But I didn’t win snowboard so I didn’t like it,” Bamford said, smiling. “I went with what I was winning - skiing.”

There were skiers in the field from China and Turkey, from Uzbekistan and Albania. Some were from all over, like Kenza Tazi, an 18-year-old with braces who was born in Boston, lives in France, skis for Morocco and hopes to attend college at Cambridge.

“It’s amazing to be with the best in the sport, absolutely motivating,” Tazi said.

The best known of the lesser-known skiers was Vanessa-Mae, who rose to fame in 1995 with her debut album “Violin Player.” She finished 67th on Tuesday, 50.10 seconds behind the winning time.

“I was lucky that the Olympics, you know, allow exotic nations,” Vanessa-Mae said, “for people like me who have day jobs.”



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