Last month, at a crammed news conference in Asunción, Paraguay, 21-year-old Julia Marino gave the biggest speech of her life. She spent a week preparing. It would be delivered in Spanish, a language in which she is far from fluent, and the message was crucial to get right. She was introducing herself as Paraguay's first Winter Olympian and asking for acceptance.
Marino, a slopestyle skier, spent much of her speech explaining what it means to ski as television screens behind her portrayed her in action. For those in the audience -- a group of reporters and presidents of Paraguay's summer Olympic sports federations -- she might as well have been riding a donkey into space.
The Spanish word for snow is nieve, but it is rarely spoken in Paraguay because there is none -- let alone any skiers. The country's landscape more closely resembles a savannah, especially north of Asunción, the capital, where a 60-degree day qualifies as frigid.
Marino explained to the audience her improbable plight: how she was born in a tiny, impoverished Paraguayan village called Bahía Negra, eight hours north of the capital; adopted as an infant by an American couple and raised in Winchester, Mass., two hours south of Loon Mountain, N.H.; and became a world-class freeskier in the new Olympic discipline of slopestyle.
She shared her dream of competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and told the crowd that she had decided not to represent the U.S. but instead to represent her birth nation, a move that was supported by Paraguay's sports ministry and Olympic committee. "I hope you welcome my goals and accept me as your athlete," she said. Her appearance marked her first time in Paraguay since she was 8 months old, and she didn't know how she would be received. When she finished her speech, the crowd stood and applauded.
"It was a moment when I felt so proud to be from Paraguay," she said.
How Marino went from a psychology student at the University of Colorado to the hottest sports story in Paraguay is a tale of its own. In all practicality, it started last spring when she earned a U.S. start in the final FIS World Cup slopestyle contest in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
Amid bitter winds and fog that divided the competitors on whether the event should take place or not, Marino finished second, making her eligible for the 2014 Olympics. She would still have to qualify, however, and the U.S. team was going to be the hardest in the world to make.
One day, she and her coach, Chris "Hatch" Haslock, founder of Axis Freeride in Park City, Utah, got to talking about Sochi. Haslock, an ex-U.S. Olympic aerials coach, knew Marino was born in Paraguay and remained a dual citizen, so she could compete right away if she changed countries. He also knew this dilemma ran much deeper than that.
Marino, who had held an Olympic dream since she was 13, thought hard about her career and the options at hand. Ultimately, she decided: "The Olympics are about representing where you are from, and Paraguay is where I'm from," she says.
The jigsaw puzzle from there was wicked difícil -- and masterminded by Marino. With the clock ticking toward Sochi, Haslock asked U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association officials if they would release Marino as an athlete and let her keep her FIS points -- a request that posed little risk to the U.S. since it hadn't invested in Marino and its talent pool was deep enough to offset her points. U.S. Freeskiing director Jeremy Forster had no interest in blocking the move, which happens a few times a year among FIS athletes. He consented and wished her luck.
While that was in motion, Paraguay's Olympic committee agreed to double as the national ski association -- a requirement for Paraguay to enter a skier in World Cup events and, ultimately, the Olympics. Marino, Haslock and the general manager of Paraguay's Olympic committee, Esteban Casarino, chatted daily, hashing out details, translating documents, making sure the process constantly moved forward. Marino, a junior at CU, was taking a full course load all the while.
After Marino endured much bureaucracy, 3 a.m. email sessions and unforeseen roadblocks, the International Ski Federation added Paraguay as a provisional member in early November, opening the door for Marino to go to Sochi.
"She's had a lot more work than just proving she's worthy of the Olympics as a skier," says Erik Kaloyanides, Marino's strength coach since 2008. "Because, let's face it, they had to create this."
Marino has always taken pride in her Paraguayan roots. She was adopted in December 1992 by entrepreneur John Marino and corporate strategist Sharon Merrill. Six months after they brought Julia home, John returned to Paraguay and picked up her brother Mark, who was born in Asunción and is seven months younger than Julia. The kids grew up as best friends and remain so today.
While John and Sharon were in Paraguay finalizing the adoptions, they made a point to take photos of the babies in various places around Asunción. They tried to capture the culture of the country and the people who live there. When the kids were old enough, their parents gave them each a photo album to show where they came from, and Merrill told them this story:
"There were these two very lovely ladies who were pregnant, and they had you and they loved you so much that they wanted nothing but the best for you, but they knew they couldn't take care of you. So they asked God to find a mother and a father for you. At the same time, Daddy and I were praying that we could find two beautiful kids to adopt. So God said, 'OK, I have these two parents who are looking for two beautiful kids,' and that's how it happened."
Marino always leaned on her father, an ex-college football player, for sports advice. He traveled with her to competitions and embraced her Olympic dream. His sudden death in 2007, while running on a treadmill, devastated Julia and her family. Her brother and mother are now her biggest fans -- in addition to her Paraguayan godmother, Magdalena Rivarola, whom her parents befriended shortly after adopting Julia and Mark.
When it comes to the Olympics, Marino doesn't dispute it is easier to qualify for Paraguay than the U.S. "My coaches and I went back and forth about how I feel as an athlete about that," she said. "I don't look at it as cheating myself or not working hard. I had to work very hard to get that spot to go to Spain [for the FIS World Cup slopestyle contest].
"At the end of the day, it's not like I switched countries and could just sign up for the Olympics. You have to have a top 30 [finish] in a World Cup [event], and I have to be in the top 24 on the points list that comes out in mid-January before the Olympics -- and I'm very confident that I can stay high on the list, as I have."
Although Marino worried how her peers would react to her decision, maturity trumped jealousy. In June, fellow Massachusetts skier and U.S. Olympic hopeful Jessica Breda texted her: "If you have a chance to go to the Olympics, you'd be crazy not to take it."
Nine days before Marino's nation change was approved, she broke her collarbone during a training session in Switzerland. It kept her off snow until she arrived in Colorado in mid-December, but she calls the injury a blessing in disguise considering everything else she has been dealing with.
During her November trip to Asunción, Marino achieved sudden fame in her birth country. Travelers swarmed her at the airport after a live television appearance; one woman asked her to sign a napkin. People come up to Casarino, too, and ask if he will be going to Sochi. Those who are old enough to remember it liken Marino's story to the 1993 film "Cool Runnings."
"Just like the Jamaicans," they say.
"Something like that," Casarino answers.
Marino, for her part, talks about life "doing a 180," though, at this point, it seems more like a 360. The Olympic committee was worried that people might come forward to claim her as their daughter. She has pondered the possibility that her biological parents, whom she knows nothing about -- per the terms of her closed adoption -- could be watching when she drops into the Olympic slopestyle course in February.
"If they are," she says, "and they ever did know it was me, I would love to thank them for giving me this opportunity. They could have easily kept me in Paraguay, but they let me grow up in the United States and learn to ski. I hope they'd be proud."