He placed last at the Olympics but won at life

Robert Carcelen competed with two broken ribs. Associated Press photo.

SEATTLE -- You might think there are no medals for placing last in the Olympics.

Then you've never met Roberto Carcelen.

Carcelen, a Microsoft employee, was the first-ever winter Olympian for his native Peru. He discovered cross-country skiing as an adult at Snoqualmie Pass.

Then he competed in that sport in the 2010 and 2014 winter games.

The 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, made him famous. He won by losing.

The winners are children of poverty in Latin America.

It's an old story, you say. Athlete gets famous by futility.

But Carcelen is no Eddie the Eagle, the British ski jumper who became a media darling complete with a book and movie.

Carcelen, who works in e-commerce and now splits his time between New York and Florida, met his future wife, Kate, online. He moved to Seattle and married.

At age 36, he discovered cross-country skiing. It's a sport often dominated by countries where kids get on skis after they learn to walk.

He competed in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It was three years after he learned to ski.

He returned home committed and driven to get better at his new sport.

He did and prepared for the 2014 games. Two weeks before Sochi he took a bad fall.

"I had really bad pain on my right side," he said.

He had two broken ribs. In several days, he was supposed to ski a 15-kilometer Olympic race.

Carcelen talked to his wife and decided to race. He knew he couldn't win or even do well. But that wasn't the point.

"If I can finish ... cross the finish line ... I t will create a great example to the people I am trying to inspire, which in this case is the poor people in Latin America."

Carcelen finished last. But never was a last place so inspiring.

He picked up a Peruvian flag as he raced. The winner, who finished 30 minutes before him, remained to cheer him on. So did many of the fans.

A star was born. He arrived in Peru to acclaim.

He thought he would return to Peru and start a ski school. But he encountered, he said, "a different reality."

He hasn't been on skis since Sochi, but he has been busy.

"I mean sports are great. But they're not going to help you get out of poverty. However, on the other side is education.. We can give you a skill so you can make it out of your condition of poverty, out of real misery."

He thought about the children of Cantagallo, a Lima slum.

"It’s in a landfill. They don’t have sewage. They don’t have water, drinkable water. Its terrible."

He started the Roberto Carcelen Foundation.

He opened a school, hoping to teach the poorest children in Peru computer coding.

"The foundation’s mission is to harness the power of determination while instilling core Olympic values through the promotion of education. We believe that the combination of these factors creates a cycle for success and will inspire young people to follow their dreams and attain the unattainable," the foundation's website says.

"They develop their own games. Its unbelievable to see how fast they get used to this way of thinking," Carcelen said.

Two hundred students have gone through the six-month course. Some have high-tech jobs; others have returned to teach.

Roberto Carcelen has become the role model all Olympians should be.

"People believe in you. People live their lives after all these role models. So you’re in a position to give back. And you should," he said.

Editor's note: Allen Schauffler has covered seven Olympic Games, Summer and Winter, reporting from Sydney, Salt Lake City, Athens, Torino, Beijing, Vancouver and London. During the Rio Games he’ll report from Seattle, offering a variety of stories featuring local Olympic athletes and families. They will run on KOMO News at 6 every weeknight.

For more news on the Rio Games, go here.

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