As a teenager in 1963, Harald Bjerke decided to move to the United States and attend Denver University.
“I wanted an education,” the septuagenarian said in an interview from Lillehammer, Norway, last week. “It was a very nice way to combine skiing at a high level with getting an education. And I also had some friends from Norway who went to Denver, and they thought it was very nice.”
Besides looking back fondly on his time in the U.S. and making meaningful friendships, Bjerke says his tenure at Denver helped in another way: from 1972 to 2014 he was the product manager for Swix.
“I probably got the job partly because I studied in America,” he said.
He studied business and marketing at the university, but more importantly, learned that there was a whole world to cater to.
“When you go to another country, you learn something in school, but you learn just as much just by being there,” Bjerke said. “That’s also good because [at Swix] we work with the whole world as a market. We cannot just be thinking about what the Norwegians need. You have to think about a lot of different aspects.”
Now, Bjerke has moved down to the title of Assistant Product Manager as his former protégé has taken over the head job in anticipation of Bjerke’s eventual retirement.
But back then, Bjerke wanted to go to university, and doing so would have been logistically complicated at home. There was no coordination between ski clubs and universities, and no scholarship like the one he received to go to the U.S.
“In Norway, skiing is based upon mainly the club system,” Bjerke explained. “And also at each county or city, they have their own team where they assemble the best skiers from different clubs… I would have had just help through the club, and financially been on my own. That is the way it works in Norway.”
For several years, Bjerke competed with the top skiers in North America on the NCAA circuit and at other races. He was a fierce competitor of U.S. Olympians Mike Elliott, Mike Gallagher, and Edward Demers. In 1964, Bjerke won a North American Championship.
It’s an interesting analog to today’s discussions about NCAA skiing. Upon returning to Norway – Bjerke wanted to stay in the U.S. longer after graduating, but would have potentially had to serve in the Vietnam War – he continued racing, including notching a top-30 in the 1972 Holmenkollen 50 k and several top-10 finishes in major marathons. But he didn’t make his way onto the Norwegian Olympic squad or anything of the sort.
“I continued racing, but I had to work eight hours a day so it was kind of hard to compete,” he explained. “I did decent, not great, but fairly okay.”
Neither have most recent foreign graduates of NCAA programs, which leads to the perception in Norway that cross-country skiers who choose to head to the U.S. for scholarships are “giving up” on high-level racing.
(Several Scandinavian NCAA alums have represented their countries on the World Cup, but none have made Olympic or World Championships teams recently.)
That perception isn’t totally fair, though, Bjerke believes.
“I think it’s definitely possible to create training groups in schools in the U.S. where you can become really good, a World Champion,” Bjerke says. “I think [the common attitude] is a lack of imagination. If you had a school that had a person over here that had been to university, and they [came back] really good in cross-country skiing, then maybe that [perception] would be different.”
That may be because coaches in Norway are unfamiliar with the coaches in the NCAA system. Not only are most athletes who head to the U.S. not returning World-Cup ready, but those at home aren’t sure what environment one of their own athletes would face if they decided to go to America.
“Knut Nystad and Trond Nystad, they were coaches at Denver,” Bjerke mused. “And they came back to Norway and Trond became head coach of the Norwegian national team and Knut is still chief of the Norwegian waxing team. If they went back to DU now, it probably would be easier for Norwegians, really good cross-country skiers, to apply for going to school there. But as it is people don’t really know enough about the opportunities over there.”
He also sees a big training opportunity for Scandinavian athletes particularly out west, where they can regularly work out at elevations you’d have to fly to if you still lived in Norway.
“If you really trained well at those high elevations and you go down to sea level, you could really achieve some interesting results,” he said.
And those opportunities would be fully supported. Upon arriving in America Bjerke found out that the Denver team was no joke, and neither was its training.
“It was very professional,” he said. “In many ways it was surprising to see how it was organized. In the NCAA system, it is very much based on teams. Skiing as a team sport, that was completely new for me. And it was a very positive surprise.”
That said, he admitted that he was probably the most fit in the first year he was there.
Hearing about how programs in Alaska and New Mexico are being threatened by elimination, Bjerke considered it a pity.
“I think the NCAA is quite good because you have to have decent grades — you cannot flunk out of school,” he said. “That means you are combining your brain with doing sports, and I think that is a really good combination. If you are only training, and focusing only on that, it’s not so good. You have to use your head for something else than just sports. That will help you in the long run to be better in sports, I believe.”
All in all, heading to another country is an education in more ways than one, and doing so with a scholarship sweetens the deal.
“I would have been more narrow-minded,” Bjerke said of what his life might have been like if he had stayed in Norway. “That’s one way to say it. When you get over there, then you learn another culture and you learn other people. It’s really much more than little Norway. It’s a very good education for the human spirit — for being a human being.”