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Venture Capitalist Gets A Wild Idea: Try Out For The Olympics

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Paul Bragiel is a successful venture capitalist in San Francisco. Early last year he realized he needed to participate in the Olympics at least once in his life. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to Bragiel from Finland, where he's training to go from "chunky computer nerd" to Olympic cross-country skier.



And one more story about transformation. Up until about a year ago, Paul Bragiel was not particularly into sports. By his own admission, he was a chunky out-of-shape computer nerd. He was much better with his head. He's a venture capitalist at I/O Ventures in San Francisco. But when we reached him in Kittila, Finland - that's above the Arctic Circle and it's where he's training to qualify for this year's Winter Olympics as a cross-country skier for the nation of Colombia. Just to be clear: before last January, Paul Bragiel had never strapped on a cross-country ski and he didn't speak a word of Spanish. He simply realized he wanted to participate - not even win - in the Olympics once in his life. So, he's trying. Paul Bragiel, welcome.

PAUL BRAGIEL: Thanks. I appreciate it.

WERTHEIMER: Can you tell me what was the moment when you realized I must do this?

BRAGIEL: Yeah. Probably like a year ago. So, like, in my daily life, I go around the world and I speak to young student entrepreneurs about inspiration, going for your dreams. And after one of these speeches, yeah, I kind of start thinking about, hey, what kind of dreams have I not pursued out of the business like the really deep, impossible ones? And, yeah, I woke up the next morning and it kind of hit me in the head. You know what, I always wanted to be an Olympian ever since I was a little kid and maybe this is the year I should do it.

WERTHEIMER: You decided on cross-country skiing. I mean, presumably, you took a hard look at your own abilities and possibilities.

BRAGIEL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, so, the whole time I'm thinking how to solve this problem. How do I get into the Olympics? I'm trying to figure out what is the absolute easiest way for a 35-, now 36-year-old guy can make it happen. And so what I did is look at every team sport and let's see, you know, what's the difference between a number one finisher and the last place finishers. And there were about four sports that kind of came to the top: downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, bobsled and luge. Yeah, kind of by default it became cross-country skiing.

WERTHEIMER: You know, when I heard about this, my first thought was why not luge? I mean, surely that's the one that doesn't require a great deal of native talent.

BRAGIEL: Yeah. I mean, I'm sure it's still quite difficult but, like, it's really dangerous. I mean, and having seen somebody die doing it during the last Olympics, that was a major turnoff. I mean, I love to dream but I like my life even more. So, I was like, oh, I'll pass on this. I don't want to die. And so that's how it got eliminated, via that logic.

WERTHEIMER: OK. So, you picked cross-country and then you picked Colombia. Now, how did that happen?

BRAGIEL: I mean, I could never make the U.S. team in any of these sports. So, I just put together like a database of every country that's never been in the Winter Olympics and I just started writing letters to them. And most countries never responded - shockingly - but there were a few countries that kind of came back and said, hey, this is kind of interesting. And Colombia was super excited, you know, kind of moved very quickly and they really loved the idea and they were super supportive.

WERTHEIMER: So, now, you are training up at the top of Finland, where I assume it's very, very cold and very, very dark this time of year. How close do you think you are to qualifying?

BRAGIEL: I'm doing a 10 kilometer classic race. And so the first time I ever did it a few months back, it took about two hours. I'm at a point now where I'm doing about 40 minutes and that's a few minutes off of where I need to get to. So, the time is getting pretty small but, obviously, as it is a close sport, the closer you get to the goal, the harder to chip away the times.

WERTHEIMER: So, let's just take a great leap of faith and say you qualify. If you do qualify, now then what do you want to do? I mean, how is it going to feel if you come in, like, way last?

BRAGIEL: Yeah. I mean, so, I already come in way last in most of my races. So, I've kind of gotten that beaten out of me. And also the whole ski community has been super nice to me. Like, they (unintelligible) they help me with my waxes and my skis and stuff like that. So, it doesn't feel that alone. Or it doesn't feel that, like, like it's odd because everyone has been so nice and supportive of it.

WERTHEIMER: Paul Bragiel is a venture capitalist at I/O Ventures in San Francisco, but now he's training above the Arctic Circle in Finland trying to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Mr. Bragiel, thank you very much.

BRAGIEL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: Good luck.


BRAGIEL: Thanks. I need it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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