Dinner with Gunde

FasterSkierNovember 9, 2007

Meeting Gunde Svan was not supposed to happen this way. No, not while pushing a Swedish meatball through a puddle of lingonberry sauce. Maybe a shake of the hand at the prize giving ceremony for the Royal Cup Sprint around the King’s Castle in Stockholm, or at Café Opera after the World Cup Finale. No, not while eating dinner in Torsby. In a dining hall filled with Sweden’s national team, Gunde sat down beside coach, teammate, me. That’s when I met the one I spent grade school days daydreaming about, dropping the Russians, the Finns, and Vegard Ulvang at Holmenkollen, Falun, Calgary.

In seconds the ten time Olympic and World Champion gold medalist seamlessly enters in conversation, our conversation. I rely on seamless, the adjective, as a crutch in describing a first time meeting free of pleasantries or lows in dialogue. I wish to explain this better. I cannot. I only remember thinking, ‘Gunde, he’s good. He’s got charisma. He’s equal parts humble and confident. He’s got great stories — talking rally cars never gets old. Empty dinner plate. Wait a second, how’d this happen? How’d I get into this conversation?”

With time, themes of conversation change course. “I moved away to Torsby at sixteen to attend the ski gymnasium here. The first weeks were hard — I remember the nerves of being on my own in Torsby. But it was my choice to come here. I saw this as the perfect place to chase being a ski racer. There wasn’t the ski tunnel — it’s kind of incredible, really — but Torsby had Sweden’s only rollerski track then. We thought this quite a thing, being able to rollerski without worry of cars and trucks. The terrain, too, was something else. The course’s steep hills built up more than just my ski muscles. The terrain built up my capacity. On roads, you can’t really do this. We needed those tough hills. I’ve always thought I needed as much time training in the terrain of ski courses. The loop had this.

“Maybe I do know something about skiing, but it’s been years since my ski career ended,” continues Svan. “The young skiers know me more for being on television than for skiing. Charlotte Kalla today told me, ‘I always knew what you meant to Swedish skiing but I remember you from the Bingolotto and Gladiators. It’s these shows I grew up watching.”

“I’ve mostly been out of skiing since retiring after Falun 1991. It’s been some years since my ski career ended. Since retiring most of my work has been working with business leadership with my wife. It’s for this reason why I take on this new challenge with the Team. When told I was wanted for this job they said, ‘We’re not hiring you for what you did on the ski trails.’ They brought me in for the work I’ve done since then.

“Our team, maybe you’ve heard, has some challenges ahead,” Gunde says in reference to Thobias and Mathias Fredrickson, Bjorn Lind and Anders Sodergren’s decision to train and race outside Team Sweden. “We cannot have two national programs going in two different directions. We have to be one. We have to work together. There is no other way.”

One hour later, Mr. Svan met with the four members outside the team. Two days later, the four members were back within the national team. That weekend Bjorn Lind finished second in the individual sprint in Dusseldorf. Thobias Fredrickson, with Peter Larsson as teammate, won the World Cup Sprint Relay. The Gunde effect couldn’t have hurt.

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