Charles Flaherty couldn’t help but smile at the double takes when he told friends in Puerto Rico that he would be representing the island as an Alpine skier at the Winter Olympics.
"Some of them ask what skiing even is," Flaherty said. "They've never seen snow. Some of them said, 'You mean water skiing?' A lot of people just laugh, and they ask me if it's like the Jamaican bobsled team.
"It's almost like that."
In this weekend's giant slalom event in Pyeongchang, Flaherty, 17, became the first winter Olympian to compete for the U.S. territory since a skier and two bobsled teams in 1998. He didn't medal — or even come close —but he had said he didn't expect to make the podium. He just wanted a solid finish in what he hopes is one of many Olympic appearances. Flaherty is expected to compete next in the slalom event on Feb. 22.
Flaherty's youth and inexperience made him an unlikely competitor in the event, as did his background: He's lived only on the tropical island and, as a young child, in the flat U.S. state of Ohio. He grew up in Cincinnati until his father, Dennis, moved the family to Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, in 2010, when he relocated his business.
Flaherty began skiing when he was 8 years old and his family took a trip to Beaver Creek, Colorado. He took to the snow immediately.
Flaherty has only been a competitive skier for 3 ½ years, working with coach Sara Radamus at Ski Club Vail.
"If you told me a couple years ago I would be in the Olympics, I would've laughed at you," he said. "It's been a wild ride."
Flaherty didn’t find out until mid-December that he would represent Puerto Rico after holding out hope that the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee would acknowledge his qualification. The committee withdrew recognition of the Winter Sports Federation after 2002 when a bobsledder it sent to Salt Lake City was ruled ineligible by the committee and forced the team to withdraw from competition.
Flaherty was able to compete in Pyeongchang when the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee allowed a six-month temporary membership in the Winter Sports Federation. His seven years of living on the island met the threshold of three years of residency in order to represent Puerto Rico.
"I was speechless at first," Flaherty said. "We had been working on permission to go for a couple months and it wasn’t looking great."
"I cried," Flaherty’s mother, Ann, said. "We were very excited and proud of him. We were thrilled for Puerto Rico. The island needed some good news and we are happy to be able to provide a glimmer of hope for our home of the past seven years."
Puerto Rico is able to field its own team separate from Team USA despite being a U.S. territory because the International Olympic Committee recognizes Puerto Rico’s National Olympic Committee separately from the U.S.
Flaherty served as the flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremony, giving Puerto Rico a source of pride in its ongoing recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Maria in September.
"Puerto Rico has given so much to us," Flaherty said. "I'm happy they've given me the opportunity to give back."
The Flaherty family evacuated from their current home in Rio Grande a few days ahead of the storm, but watched as friends had their lives upended by the damage.
"It was really personal," Flaherty said. "I was watching videos on the news going, 'I go to school on that street' or 'I drove down that highway every day to go to training.'
"I feel like (the Olympics) is the first positive thing the island has had in a while, and it's really cool to be a part of."
Competing in Pyeongchang has also been gratifying for Flaherty’s family, because his younger brother William is alive to see it. William, 13, was diagnosed with a life-threatening immunodeficiency called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis when he was 3 years old.
William had to have almost a dozen blood transfusions in the first week after his diagnosis and was on the verge of liver failure. Without a bone marrow transplant, his chances of survival were grim.
Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center discovered that Charles, then 7, was a perfect match. Stem cells were harvested from Charles’ marrow during a 2008 procedure that saved William's life. He is now completely healthy.
"My parents tried to shield me from it," Flaherty said. "They weren’t around much for about six or eight months, and I would get updates on how William was doing from my teacher from emails my parents sent.
"It was definitely a little frightening, but we got through it."
"We are the lucky ones — we still have both of our boys," Ann Flaherty said. "Now we just encourage them to seize the day. Charles is certainly doing a good job at that!"
Flaherty already has his sights set on representing Puerto Rico at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.