With the World Cup of Soccer taking place in South Africa this summer, FasterSkier tracked down Oliver Kraas. The enigmatic South African was eager to talk about his season on the World Cup, the Olympics and the state of cross country skiing in South Africa.
FasterSkier: Can you tell us about your South African heritage? And how does a South African get into a sport like cross-country skiing?
Oliver Kraas: I was born and raised in Germiston, Republic of South Africa, so I have South African citizenship. Because my Dad is German, we moved when I was four to Germany, and so the whole cross-country skiing thing started then. Originally we were a sailing family, but at the sailing club there was a cross-country coach and he told told my Dad, “cross country in winter is good for sailing shape in summer,” so my brother and I started with skiing! Later, we cancelled sailing and kept on with biathlon and cross-country!
After finishing high school at Elite Schoole of Sport in Oberhof, I decided for personal and federation reasons to quit biathlon. Instead, I switched to triathlon for a while, before coming back to cross-country in 2003! Since 2004, I have been the only qualified African who has qualified to ski International Ski Federation World Cups.
FS: How much time do you spend in South Africa and how active is the ski community in the country?
OK: Since we moved I am not down there often, but I try to be once per year—for the Nationals and visiting friends! There is not really a scene—most of the South African cross-country skiers are exiles living in North America or Europe. We’re try to build up and develop—at the moment—a roller ski scene to scout local talents, but it´s really hard to find someone with this soccer hype!
FS: What are your plans for the summer? Where and with whom will you be training? OK: I decided to quit after the Vancouver Games. I am 35 now, and for a sprint specialist, it´s time to accept: “You are not getting younger, my friend!” The Games were my last highlight—although everyone told me I should keep going one more year because Oslo is definitely my course—only 2:30 long! I focus on my business now and give my knowledge to some young athletes here in my spare time.
FS: How did your World Cup season go this year? Was it significantly different than before, and were you happy with your results?
OK: After having two really “bad luck” seasons, one with breaking my hand, this season was way better than the last few ones. Since Sapporo Worlds in 2007 (and finishing university), I have had to work regularly until last spring. I own a business now (NSC-Nordic Sports Consulting), so it was always a compromise between training and work. Since last spring I focused more on sport again to use the chance to be part of the Olympic family.
The last season in general: until Christmas I was really frustrated about my shape—no race was good and my speed was bad, although I had a good feeling. After Christmas, my speed came back and I did a few good races. (I always had the view of my possibilities in the back of my mind.) At the end, I was not satisfied with my World Cup results, but with shape at all—I did a few good FIS races, and in the end I had bad luck again, as I got sick two days before the Vancouver Sprint.
FS: You didn’t start a single distance race at the World Cup level this season, and have not done so for quite a while – why did you choose to specialize as a sprinter?
OK: I use distance races only as hard training and focus on sprinting—the reason that I often start distance races at World Championships or Olympic Games is more a federation thing that I have had to! My focus on sprinting was also caused by my handicap/disease. Sprinting was my choice—I have Alpha-1-Antitrypsin-disease, and with it you are not such a good distance guy! But it should not be an excuse—it´s more like: if you know your advantages or disadvantages you have to choose your way.
FS: Can you tell me a little bit more about Alpha-1-Antitrypsin-disease and how it forced you to choose sprinting?
OK: It would be too long story of a story now if I explained everything, but there are a few facts that are “funny”:
—The professors/specialists at university clinics, etc., told me that it was not possible to do sport at this level, and they though I was making jokes when I told them I am starting at World Cup and international level. (They said it cut my performance by about 20 to 30 percent, and if I check my results I am about 10 percent behind the winner, so…ok, small joke.)
—As “alpha” you can be fast on short distances of about one to two minutes or really long distances like Ironman, so there was only one way to be a fast cross country skier—sprinting! Since they enlarged the World Cup sprints up to four minutes, I really had problems performing well.
It was always a goal for me, since I knew my handicap, to show that people could also do high performance sport with handicaps (look at Kris Freeman), and do it on a more-or-less high level.
FS: Vancouver was your second trip to the Olympics—how did the experience differ from Italy?
OK: First, my mom is living in Vancouver, so it was also a family trip. I have a bunch of friends over there and so I knew that it would be a HUGE party the whole time! Personally, I was really impressed by the hype of the whole area and Canada—it was way better than in Italy. Also, the food was way better in the village! The Olympic village was a bit out of the line, so we were a bit isolated out there in the woods—most of the athletes got a bit of cabin fever—but at the end we are all there to have good performances and not only party!
In Italy it was my first Olympic Games, so I was just impressed by being there. This time I also wanted to have a perfect race (even though I didn’t), and focused completely on the sprint! At the end, the Vancouver Games were really good and perfect organized, and an experience for life again!
OK: Nordic Sports Consulting works in the field of research and development, marketing and sales. At the moment I am consulting for an Italian underwear brand called NO LIMITS in marketing, international sales and a bit of research and development (product management). I am also working on a new rollerski project and a new cross-country ski boot concept.
It’s a full time job, now—I still do a bit training, but only just for fun.
FS: Can you tell us a little bit more about your coaching role? Is it something you hope to continue doing as a volunteer, or professionally?
OK: I have a small group of young talented, guys 16 to 19 years old, who I try to teach my philosophy of sport and training and bring one of them to Junior World Championships next winter. But it´s more an honorary office—otherwise these guys would quit the sport, because they have no coach here. In Germany you couldn’t earn money as a ski coach if you are not hired by the ski federation or the army—especially not if you are a half blood!
I like these young guys and they are talented, so I write daily plans and go out with them two to three times a week. Cross-country skiing is my passion, and if there is someone who wants to be coached by me, I do it with same passion I did my sport and training for almost 25 years now—but I’m not forcing it. I’m independent with my job and I want also to be independent in my way to do coaching cross-country, and especially sprinting—in Germany, my way was not always accepted by the coaches.
The guys and their parents asked me if I could help them to be faster skiers, because they watched how I trained the last few seasons and liked my philosophy.
FS: The World Cup of soccer is currently being held in South Africa – have you been paying attention, and if so, who were/are you cheering for?
OK: What is that for a question?! BAFANA BAFANA (the nickname for the South African national soccer team), and now the young German guys team—they are really fresh players. Ok, often with some luck or bad luck, but with this cool kind of playing they will come at least to semi-finals!