Part 19 – The Norwegian Ski Wonder

FasterSkierMarch 2, 2003

But when the Olympic decision was made in 1988, it was no guarantee that the cross-country skiing events in Lillehammer would be a Norwegian success. Only very few had any faith in Norwegian skiing. It was the Swedes, with Gunde Svan as a powerful front man, who dominated. The mood of the team when I joined was simply not good. When we rode the participant bus to the World Championships in Lahti, Finland, in 1989 and saw all the hard uphills, one of the older skiers in the back seat said, “Here it should be possible to ski some really bad races.”

Around the breakfast table the topic of discussion was just as likely to be about how far behind Gunde Svan we would be at the first time split. “Ten seconds back, that would be pretty good,” thought one person. “Yeah, but it will probably be more like 20,” said another. There are better ways to build up a young boy’s self confidence.

Just a few years later the mood was completely turned. Now the attitude about the hard uphills was something different: “Here is where the foreign skiers really feel it. This is going to be fun!” A gang of defensive boys had become an team on the offense. What had happened?

Behind the change lay a concerted effort on all fronts. Some of the honor should go to the new coach, Åke Jönsson. As a former officer it was natural that he was a solid organizer. But in addition he was unusually good at creating a good environment around him. At the same time Åke understood that no one is able to do a job alone. Better than most, he understood that only cooperation creates success. Together with the national ski association he built up a support staff that has come to mean a lot. Many knowledgeable, instinctive and enthusiastic individuals were given permission to give life to their ideas. We had a well-planned altitude-training program, more systematic and research-based control of our training at all levels and a program for ski preparation that no one in the world had seen the likes of.

Other elements that had a big impact were the waxers and medical experts who were drawn into the effort. They knew plenty about their areas of expertise, but they were also great at creating the proper mood about them. The pianist, card-player and doctor Kjell Eystein Rœkke was there with physiologist Erlend Hem, physiotherapists Morten Ã…modt, Torger Hansen and Ketil Ulvang (Vegard’s brother). In addition for doing the job they were paid for, they wrote song lyrics and found a lot of fun things that contributed to bringing us all together. We enjoyed the sames songs and enjoyed the same jokes. We became a team.

We were still individuals, as those who participate in an individual sport must be. But more and more, we were able to find joy in the success of others. We understood that regardless of how good each of us managed to become, we would become even stronger if we supported each other. We didn’t just ski for ourselves; we skied for Norway. And we were proud of it. If Vegard won, then Norway won — and thereby I would win as well. If Sture Sivertsen won, then Norway won — and thereby I would win as well. If I won, then it was a victory for the rest as well. This is the way we thought, even though we were naturally still rock-hard competitors out on the ski courses.

There was also meaning in the generation shift among the athletes. Young, ambitious guys like Erling Jevne, Øyvind Skaanes, Sture Sivertsen and I took over after skiers who had done a lot of good, but were on the way down. And in the middle we had Vegard, who battled among the world’s elite for years but still hunted for his first gold medal in a large international championship. For us skiers, who received all the credit for things that went well, it was inspiring to see how hard everyone in the support staff worked. As an important part of the team they also did their job. Always. I still ahv no idea when those guys would sleep during the day. The waxers efforts are something I will go into a little more in a later chapter. In addition to those I feature there, I need to mention Magne Myrmo. The experiences and knowledge of the former world champion meant a lot for us. (ed. note: Magne Myrmo was the last skier to win a World Championship gold medal on wooden skis when he won at the 1974 Worlds in Falun).

With the team spirit and optimism came results. In Calgary’s Olympics in 1988 we did not win any gold medals. In Albertville, four years later, we took home five.

We became plainly said, good friends, a gang that had a good time together. Some might think that we had too much fun. Examples of all the wild things we found, in addition to being a lot of fun, surely brought us closer together. Here is one of them: in conjunction with a World Cup race in Slovakia in 1993 was an evening race, which Vegard won. The prize was a live piglet that weighed around 20 kg. I didn’t participate in the race, so I was asleep when he came back from the race. Naturally enough he wanted to show me his prize, so he threw the piglet up onto my bed. It howled and shrieked terribly, and I probably gave out some sound too when I was awaken without warning by a pig that was desperately running around my bed.

Such a fun idea needed to be shared by many. We took the pig with us around the hotel and heaved it up on bed after bed. Among the victims were Anita Moen and Torgny Mogren. One of the team leaders got claw marks on his chest. It would have been fun to be there when he came home and had to explain to his wife what had happened: “No, it wasn’t any woman. It was a pig!”

A lot of life, a lot of pig cries, a lot of fun. And even though some became irritated, maybe even mad, this kind of craziness contributed to binding us together. We sold the poor pig to a ski technician from Ramsau, Austria. When Vegard and I visited him the next fall, we had ham from the prize pig.


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