“Bjrn, come over here. Look at me. Can you smile a little? Lift you arms over your head. Can we get a really great picture of you celebrating? Take a jump in the air”
The finish line has been passed, the gold has been won, but the job isn’t finished. A lot of fun and business remains, and first the photographers need to get their shots. After the flower ceremony with the three medal winners on the winners’ podium and then a victory lap around the stadium where I heave the flowers into the audience, it is as if I say farewell to the spectators (even though I will likely see many of them at the medals ceremony later that night). I would have gladly stuck around for hours and thanked people for the support they have shown. Those who say people from the area around Trondheim are silent have no idea what they are talking about. The warmth, compassion and enthusiasm that they have shown me is something I have not experienced any other place. They beat Lillehammer.
Then it is the press’ turn. Journalists are the same anywhere: impatient and restless. They ask all sorts of questions: not just about the race, but on all sorts of other things as well. As usual, it goes okay. For me the press is a natural and important part of the arrangement.
During a championships the routine is set fast. First we go through something that is called a mixed zone. Here stand the TV and radio reporters and press-people in rows. They all want to know the most possible on the race and what you feel right now.
“Bjrn, is this the biggest thing you have experienced?”
Today the answer is simple: “Yes!” The only race that stands up in this context is the 10 km race in Lillehammer. Most would think that it would be greater to take one’s first Olympic gold medal on Norwegian soil than it would to win the first World Championship gold. When I express that I appreciate the World’s gold more, it is because of all of the difficulty I have had before the race. One month of continuous difficulty is turned around into a victory. For the first time in two months I am back on top, and not just that. I have skied what feels like the perfect race; a race in which everything went right. Everything! I was 28 seconds in front of the second place skier. Never before has some one won a 10 km race in an international championship by so much.
Never has some one skied a 10 km classic race as fast, either. The finishing time, 23:41.8 is almost 40 seconds faster than my winning time on the 1994 Winter Olympics. Yup, this is the biggest – bigger than the Olympics.
One should never speak with food in one’s mouth. It’s something I learned at the table back home. But the reporters who know me know that I go against what I have learned as a kid. It is important to get nutrition into the body as quick as possible, so that the recovery process can begin. So the journalists have to put up with the fact that I eat during press conferences. The chewing also gives me a chance to think a little extra when the questions become more difficult. That, and it is not a dumb idea to give others a chance to speak as well.
At the international press conference following the race, Mika Myllyla was asked to characterize my efforts today. “Oh, he is a man from another planet,” he said. A man from another planet! The piece of bread I was eating almost got stuck in my throat! I have seldom been as proud as I was today.
Next stop: doping control. The urine test goes well, as usual. I have a lot of experience with producing a couple of drops of urine while others watch. I understand that some one must be present during the test, because there are many stories about athletes who have tried to fool the controllers. The most incredible was one about a male athlete who was told after the analysis of his test that he was in his third month of pregnancy. During the test he had tried to pass his wife’s urine as his own.
Then finally: the shower. Two hours have passed since I finished the race. The it goes like it often does after a big race: even though my emotions are strong once I have crossed the finish line and realized that I have won, it is first when I stand alone in the shower that I really comprehend the victory. When I feel the warm water fall down on me, I almost scream, “I did it! I did it!”
Then I think of my first World Cup victory, where I cried tears of joy in the shower. And I also think back to my first World Championship victory in 1991 when Gunde Svan, a skier I had looked up to for so many years, would stand one step below me on the podium. The man who finished third in that race was some one who would become my toughest competitor in the 1990s, Vladimir Smirnov. But today he finished long down the list. I take a moment to wonder why, and then strike the thought from my mind. He will probably come back, and maybe even already in these championships.
But regardless of what Smirnov or the others might do in the events that remain, I did it! Today, I did it! Some think that it is easier for me now than it was before, but it is actually the opposite. Before I could, in a whole other way, focus solely on training and competition. With a touch of regret I think that the days are gone when I could have one workout in the morning and one workout in the evening. In between I could lie down while Vilde made lunch. Now there is so much else: sponsors, businesses, deals and commitments of so many types. My experience is that it is harder to stay at the top than it is to get there.
But I did it!
I could have stood there for hours, by there is a schedule I need to stick to and the plan is pretty tight: lunch, national press conference, medals ceremony in the center of Trondheim, a live show on Norwegian National Broadcasting, and a small party with the rest of the team. And there is a new race tomorrow: the pursuit.
Luckily I manage to make a quick phone call home to Vilde and our son, Sivert, who is now two years old. On this day when I thought that all of Norway had followed the race on TV, his opening question is:
“Papa, have you been skiing today, too?”
It’s a good reminder that cross-country skiing and a World Championship gold are not the only things in life. So when I state that this is the biggest day, I hope that people realize I mean it is the biggest day in skiing. Life has given me bigger days.