Magne Myrmo might not be a household name among American ski circles these days. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a ski legend. Of ski legends from the 1970s, Myrmo’s name holds up well to his Norwegian teammate Oddvar Braa, the big Finn Juha Mieto and America’s own Bill Koch. Myrmo is perhaps best known for his disdain of early fiberglass skis. Racing at the 1974 World Championships in Falun, Myrmo didn’t even bother to bring anything but his fleet of wooden skis to Sweden. His world 15-kilometer title there is the last major medal taken on wood skis. Ever. Now a serviceman for the Estonian national team, Magne and I met up in Otepaa, Estonia. Our conversation follows.
Interview by Torin Koos, with judicious help from Vidar Loefshus. Abridged Version.
GETTING IDEAS — Magne’s Early Influences
Magne, tell us how you got your start in cross-country skiing?
I grew up in a family of skiing. So the interest for the sport was always there in my family. I started out jumping. The main reason being there were no ski races for young kids — it was only when you were sixteen or seventeen that you could enter ski races back then. Though I didn’t race, I was really into the sport- I loved it. I skied pretty much alone as a junior as there weren’t many other skiers around Rennebu (90 km south of Trondheim).
Even though, I easily realized I had talent in the skiing, even when training as a ski jumper, skiing came to me naturally. I transitioned first to nordic combined, then to skiing at sixteen. Even as a nordic combiner I could sense my ski talent was highest in pure skiing. In the winters of 1962 and 1963 I competed at the national junior championships in cross-country, and took home some titles. 1962 was the year my real ski career started.
1964 saw my first year as a senior skier. Just like today, that transition was quite hard. Not many people manage this, handling the harder competition. It took several years to find myself with good results as a senior skier. 1966 was my first year on the national team. I was with them until â€˜78 — 12 years with the team, before taking over national team coach responsibilities.
The first year coaching, I was a bit of a â€œplayer-coach,â€ though coaching responsibilities came first and I couldn’t train much then. At the 1979 Holmenkollen 50km, I woke up early, tested kick waxes, waxed skis for the girls, then headed out onto the trail to give splits. After the women’s race I went home for lunch, waxed my skis, then immediately headed to the start. I finished 11th.
Growing up in Norway in the 1960s you probably had some early ski heroes. Who were they?
Hallgeir Brenden was my first ski hero, a great Olympian in 1952 and 1960. And then, of course, my teammate Harald Gronningen.
When did you first begin dreaming of taking Olympic medals?
I always had the dream, even as a little boy. It was always with me. After a while, it became more than a dream. Becoming a Olympic medallist became a goal.
Asides from skiing in those early years, what other pursuits or athletic dreams did you have?
There was, of course, the jumping. I always played soccer, lots of soccer. Sometimes in the fall I ran cross-country.
Was there a certain race or memory you had that stands out as a confirmation of their talent — when they saw they could really make it – when you knew you were a world-class talent?
When I was one of the best juniors I really believed I could also develop and become a great senior skier. But as I told you earlier, this took a couple years. It’s such a hard step to make, from junior to being a top senior athlete.
After 1966 national championships, I told myself â€œI can really make it.â€
Magne, what’s your advice to juniors out there who want to make it in racing?
Put in lots training. Have lots of patience – there are no shortcuts in endurance sports. If you look to the best guys even today, for them to be consistently dominating, they are in their 30s. Patience, patience, patience- this is what juniors needs. At the base, you also need a long-term goal that keeps you going for it over the years.
Today Hilde Pederson won the Otepaa women’s 10km, her first World Cup victory. She is 41, and skiing the best she ever has. Is there a message in this performance?
Yes there is, even if Hilde’s a special case. Don’t give up in your early 20s when success doesn’t come. Give it a few years, all the while doing your workouts with inspiration and desire. Its hard to find the right balance —so many people want an instant self-realization- to immediately find the perfect balance of skiing, friends, school, to training and rest the perfect amounts, not too much, not too little. Finding this can take time.
So much has changed since I was a skier. I was working when racing- won’t find that in this era. It was different time back then. Many top skiers in 1950 and 1960s were timber man. We thought to be a good skier you had to be a timber man. If I was a skier now, I’d get more rest, not work as many hours. There wasn’t the same type of support during those times though. Having whole teams of waxers, physiotherapists, getting feeds in races, it wasn’t always this way.
Mange, you are best remembered for your 1974 world championship title while racing on â€œtree skisâ€ in the early days of the fiberglass revolution. Was this your finest performance?
The Falun 15 kilometer was real close. I started early, before all the rest of the best. It was nerve wracking in that stadium, waiting for the other skiers to come. On the course, other skiers were faster than me through the split stations, but near the finish I was moving with some speed. In the end, I won by a marginal margin. It is only because of how I ended this race that gave me the victory.
But, no, Falun was not my finest performance. My best race ever was the 1974 Holmenkollen. We did two laps of the 25-kilometer loop- the race use to be actually longer that 50 kilometers, the old Holmenkollen course was longer than advertised!
I’ll always remember the last 10 kilometers of that race. I had that feeling. I could go as hard as I possibly could and couldn’t feel it. The last ten kilometers, I couldn’t have skied them faster. This was a very, very special feeling, with all the spectators on the trailside, cheering me on. It was especially meaningful, being a Norwegian and winning Holmenkollen. On that day I was flying over the snow. Just twelve seconds separated my second loop from the first.
You also had success two years earlier at the Olympic Games in Sapporo (silver 50km, silver 4x10km relay). Tell us about your Sapporo experience.
I remember Sapporo 1972 as a bit of bad memories. I left Sapporo somewhat disappointed with our team leaders. I came into the Games in really good shape. The 30km was my first race. During my warm-up the snow really started coming down. Our servicemen didn’t know what the track conditions were like outside the stadium, farther out on the course. As racers, we came back, saying our skis don’t work; we need to re-wax. It never came to be. I went to the start with my slick skis. That 30 km was a really hard, tiring race for me. The coaches decided to scratch me for the 15km to rest up for the 50km that concluded the Games. So the day before the 15km I went to the jumps, not knowing the team leaders had changed their minds, scratching Paal Tyldam, putting me in to ski the next day. So I stood up all day on the jump hill, not knowing about the change. Paal rested for the 50 kilometer. I raced the 15km. I went to the start still so sore from the 30km. I came back a little to take the silver in the five-mile, but still, Sapporo is a bad memory. Real bad skis in 30km real great shape. In such form. After Sapporo no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t help but thinking, â€œWhat if I had good skis?â€ â€œWhat if I had been rested for the 50km?â€ I can’t forget those days. Some team priorities were in the wrong place. But those days are in the past. +++
Racing when you did, skis, wax, and course preparation underwent tremendous change and improvements. What were your first thoughts about fiberglass skis; how did they feel, how did they ski?
I had heard rumors about some new skis coming out of Austria. In Reit im Winkl just before the World Championships the East Germans were using fiberglass skis. Reit im Winkle was fresh, wet snow, great conditions for fiberglass skis, so we knew what they could do. Some Norwegians had them at Norway nationals, but didn’t have the waxes to make them work.
With the Norwegian Ski Pool, one couldn’t really change companies immediately like that. We were bound to use the companies only in the pool. But, we couldn’t even get a hold of the skis then, so not being a part of the ski pool was a non-issue. We didn’t know how to prepare these new skis.
At Falun I got hold a hold of several Kneissls and Fischers, getting to try them out for the first time. It was hard to figure them out — we didn’t know hot to prepare the new skis, we didn’t have the wax or the preparation down- so I stuck to my wood skis. After Falun I tested the skis more. But even in Holmenkollen (later that spring), I still raced the wood skis. My first race on the new skis was in a springtime 50km in Northern Norway.
I’d always skied on Landsem’s, but they didn’t make fiberglass skis until next season- so I skied other brands. â€œLandsem accepted that.â€ I don’t blame the coaches and staff for not figuring out these skis, it was such a quick transition.
I was just a world champ. Yet so many people remember me because I was the last major winner with the tree-ski. Since I was the last, I guess this makes the 1974 World Championships something special. I am always reminded of this when I meet people.
What made the greatest different between wood and the new generation skis?
Glide was better. That was the revolution. Of course, when you have a camber pocket and glide zones, it’s going to be a faster ski.
With wood skis, we always followed the same recipe. Manufacturers never tried to get a flex in the ski profile. We never waxed only part of the skis. The thought was, if it’s good, its good. Don’t mess with it. There was such a tradition to using wood skis. And you stuck to this tradition.
The next year was all about fiberglass. I never went back to wood. Landsem/Blizzard came out with their model fall of 1974. The year’s first race was in Idre, SWE. Odd Var (Braa) and I went one-two. So this was an encouraging start for Landsem fiber skis.
What was the environment on the Norwegian team like back then?
The national team environment was really good. I don’t know how it is today, but were probably better fellows back then. Today skiing is more serious. We were also serious – trained hard, didn’t party. Today, though, the environment is on the edge- we were more relaxed.
What I really remember about being on the national team was when traveling around Scandinavia. When we’d come into a town for a race we’d get a huge reception, people we so intrigued to see us. It was a real big deal- back then you have to remember we weren’t on television like skiers today.
Which skier do you admire most today?
Frode Estil. He’s a great guy, both as a skier and a human being. I know him quite well, having been around him, worked for him. He has an honesty and integrity you rarely see.
You also work as a serviceman for the Estonians. What’s it like working for Veerpalu, Mae, these guys? In the U.S. you don’t hear so much about these ski champions.
Estonia is a small ski nation. It’s my 6th year working for them and it’s a good environment to be around, especially for the servicemen. I’m surprised how good a service team they are. I have been in skiing for so many years and they are for sure not worse, probably better, than the Norwegian service team. They have learned some tricks from me, but I’ve for sure learned so much more from them, even with the barrier of language. Estonian is such a hard language!
With regards to Estonian training, from what I’ve seen they train with the same philosophy as the Scandinavian countries. My impression is there is no difference in preparation- lots of emphasis on distance.
The format of ski racing has also changed so much the last five, ten years, with the mass-starts, duathlons, and sprints. Do you like these new races?
I like good old-fashioned cross-country skiing, classic of course! More so, that’s my personal opinion. I have no problem seeing the sport develop. The racers need to have difference skill sets then back in the interval start, classic only days. It’s so hard to get a gap in the pursuits, making for a lot more pack skiing. I’m one of those traditional Norwegian viewers. I like to see the split times as a skier comes out of the woods, then five kilometers later, see the development of a race this way. It’s what I grew up with. I have no problem with people liking the new formats. I’m just from the old school.
Magne, where does skiing go from here?
The new race formats will be here for the next years. Especially the sprints, they are for sure what spectators like. It’s a big party during those city sprints. You know, there is so much action in these races. This is a good thing.
What role will skiing play in the next chapters of your life?
Of course cross-country means a lot to me. But this is probably my last year as wax tech. Torino will be my tenth Olympic Games. I still really enjoy skiing. This will always be a part of my life. When I retire, it’ll be a different day-to-day lifestyle. Sometimes you have to stop. I’m not exactly young anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find the power to ski the right way — hills keep on getting steeper and steeper each year! And as a wax tech, there’s so many early morning testing. Every year I say I’ll train better, to be in better shape for the job, but …
Magne, where were you when Braa broke his pole?
I was in Gratishaugen (a section of Holmenkollen, right outside the stadium) on course with the head trainer, part of the support staff. Yes, I remember that day well.