“The Spirit of Skiing is Dying”: An Interview with Marcus Hellner

Nathaniel HerzAugust 5, 20105
Marcus Hellner (SWE) at the finish of the men's 30k pursuit at the 2010 Olympic Games.

In Las Vegas, where FasterSkier had the opportunity to interview Marcus Hellner, the Swedish skier was able to stay relatively undercover. At the card table, such was his anonymity that he had other players thinking he was a professional poker player, not a professional athlete. But in Europe, and especially in Sweden, Hellner is a star. At the Olympics in February, he vanquished rival Petter Northug, breaking the Norwegian’s pole on the way to winning the 30 k pursuit, then went on to anchor the Swedish team to gold in the relay. He was fourth in the Tour de Ski and third in the overall World Cup, collecting six podiums along the way.

Fortunately, Hellner’s English is more than good enough to sit for an interview. He’ll occasionally bust out an impressive phrase—at the Olympics, he spoke of a “lust for vengeance” after finishing fourth in the 15 k—but for the most part, his speech matches his demeanor: relaxed and deliberate.

FasterSkier: Can you start out by telling me about your training so far this year? Are you doing anything differently?
Marcus Hellner: Not such big differences, but it’s more training, a little bit more focus on the double-poling, because I want to be better there—be a better classical skier. And also I’ll try to be more focused and think a little bit more about not pushing too hard, just so you don’t get injured or something like that. Sometimes I have trouble with my knee, and I have to be focused and do the right thing—not running too long if it’s starting to hurt a little bit. It has been good so far.

FS: With the classic skiing—did you feel like you were having more trouble with it last season?

MH: Yeah—I have some things to work on. I want to get better all around, and classic is my worst technique. I’m not as good as I could be, I think, because I have a good engine, but a little bit bad technique.

FS: So what are you doing to improve it?
MH: Last year I went in a lot for skating, and I tried to be stronger in the upper body. I did a lot of pull-ups, push-ups, double-poling on steep climbs, and I think that maybe I lost my timing, a little bit, on the flats. So this year, I’m going to do a little more on the flats to discover the timing again.

FS: How many hours are you training this year?
MH: I don’t know how many hours, really, but maybe 750 or 800, something like that.

Hellner at the World Series of Poker in July

FS: Is that comparable to what you’re been doing over the last few years?
MH: It’s a little bit more. I always try to go up, and I feel that I have some room left. I always have felt that I could train a little bit more—I’ve never been feeling like I’ve trained too hard. It’s maybe 30, 40 hours more than last year. I think the most important thing for me is that I’ll train through the summer and the autumn—that’s the training season for me, and that’s when I’m counting hours. In the winter, it’s more like shaping up for the races. That’s not, for me, training season—I still train hard, but everything I do is for the competitions. It’s two parts for me, two goals.

FS: So, your goals for next year—is the overall World Cup something you’re aiming for?

MH: The goal is the ski championships in Oslo. That’s when I want to be in the best shape, but of course, I’m trying to be good in the whole season. Last season I tried to be good at the Olympics, but I also had good shape all the time.

FS: Will you try for a second peak around the Tour de Ski?

MH: I don’t think so—I will train pretty hard before the Tour de Ski. I will do it, but I will not try to be in the best shape. I think the Tour—it could be good for me to have a lot of competitions. It’s fun, and it’s good for the championships, also.

FS: In Oslo, are there specific races you’re focusing on? The pursuit and the 15 k?

MH: I don’t know—I like the 15 k most, but that’s my smallest chance of medals. Maybe the best chance is the relay, and maybe the 30 k or 50 k. It’s hard for me to tell, but I think I’ll have a good chance for medals if I’m in good shape that week.

FS: Do you feel like the Swedish team has a lot of momentum after the Olympics?

MH: Yeah—we have a good team spirit. They’re my buddies. We get along very well, we do a lot of training, and we hang out after the training as well. They’re my best friends, as well, and that’s very nice.

FS: After the Olympics, between the pursuit and the relay, it seems like you guys maybe have the edge on Norway right now.

MH: I think Norway, right now, has one person, and that’s Petter [Northug]. He’s very good. We have the four of us in the distance team—we are all people that can win a competition, so you have many skiers that are very good. Petter was the best last year—I was close, but he was a little bit better—and I think Norway depends on him very much in the relays and the other competitions.

FS: Do you feel like there’s something specific that Sweden is doing a little better right now with its men’s team, whether it’s the training philosophy or development system, or something else?

MH: I don’t know what Norway is doing, but I do know that the things we do are very good. We train hard and we have a good spirit—we want to be better. It’s a driving force all the time. We watch each other, and we share. If Johan [Olsson], for example, is better in classic, I watch him very much, and he allows me to do it. And when we’re doing races, we all push hard, and we always try to beat each other. It’s an honest situation—nobody’s trying to do anything to cover up, or to harm the team. Everybody’s thinking about the team, and I think that is very important. Even in cross-country skiing, it’s like a football [soccer] team, I think. If you can help each other, everybody gets better.

FS: The 30 k pursuit at the Olympics—there were some people in the U.S. who watched that race and said it was one of the best ever. Can you just talk a little bit about that race? How much of that was strategy, and how much of that was things falling into place?

MH: Wow, that’s flattering. We had an open mind—if there was a situation that opened to be able to help each other, we take it. That has always been our idea. We have never thought that this person will do this, this person will do that—plus, it’s only happened in the Olympics. It wasn’t a plan or anything—it

Hellner with silver medal winner Tobias Angerer after the finish of the 30 k pursuit at the Olympics

just happened. We talked during the race, and we decided we’d do it like this, and we did it all the way.

FS: Like, you and Anders Soedergren? (Hellner and Soedergren appeared to block the chasers as their teammate Olson went on a solo breakaway.)

MH: Yeah, we talked a little bit. We weren’t going to try to stop the other guys, but we weren’t going to help them. If we got in the front line, we were not going to pull hard to go on to Johan.

FS: That’s one of the benefits of having four guys that are that strong, huh?

MH: Yeah—you can do so. I’ve seen Germany do it before, a little bit—they’re trying to be helpful to each other. It’s hard in cross-country skiing because you don’t have the benefits like you have on a bicycle. You can’t slipstream that well, but you can do a little bit.

FS: And it seems like that’s the way that the International Ski Federation is going, with more mass start events, and faster courses.

MH: They want to have that, I think. I don’t know if I like it, myself. I don’t know if I want the races to be like that, because for me, cross-country skiing is still an individual sport, and I like it to be that way.

FS: How about with all the tours? There’s the one at the beginning of the season, and then there’s also the new World Tour Championship.

MH: I don’t know—I like the tours. There are some things I think they could do better, but it’s a good idea, I think. It’s many competitions, and I like to compete. But I think overall, there could be more individual competitions. I think there are too many mass starts.

FS: So if you were to ask FIS to change anything, that’s what you’d ask them to change?

MH: Yeah—I would like the 50 k to be individual [start]. I don’t like the mass start there. It’s not fun to watch, and it’s not fun to do.

FS: So you think at Worlds, that’s how they should do it?

MH: I think that’s definitely how they should do it, and I think there are many people that think like me. Anders does, and I think Johan, and Dan [Richardsson). I don’t know how the Norwegians feel—now that Petter is so good, they like it. I think the spirit of skiing is dying when they take away the individual, because that’s a very nice thing that we have.

FS: Is there anything you feel like you can do to stop that shift?
MH: Sadly, no. It’s hard. I think it’s very hard. I don’t know if there’s so much I can do about it.

FS: It seems like the power of TV and spectators is maybe more powerful than that of the athletes, at least right now.

MH: I think so. It’s a little bit sad. If all the competitors joined together…but I don’t know if all the competitors want the same as me. I can’t force anybody to feel like that, but maybe some day they will understand that it should be a 50 k individual.

Hellner knows how to put it on the line in individual-start races--this is him at the finish of the 15 k at the Olympics, in which he placed fourth.

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • Mike Trecker

    August 5, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Great interview, thanks Nat and Marcus. I agree with Hellner that the spirit of skiing is dying. The power of TV sure has something to do with it. However, you see in cycling that the epic tours have much more of a following than the short criterium circuits. We need to stick to the epic nature of our sport and not dumb it down so much. Sure, sprinting is fun to watch and do, however, the epic, solo 50k is still the standard. We need a healthy mix of ALL that is skiing and we can’t forget the individual starts.

    An aside: I kind of like the direction the FIS took about a decade ago. They had some of the Worldloppet races as World Cups. Yeah, I know that Muhlegg soloed by many minutes in the Transjursienne and made a mockery of it, but that was then. I think the FIS should not concern themselves with homologation as much as with epic events that capture the imagination of the sporting world, even if it’s hard to put on tv. Just think of the epic battle if we could hold the American Birkebeiner as a World Cup race!

    Another aside: Does anyone else think that Biathlon and Combined should bring back classic skiing in some form?

  • Martin Hall

    August 5, 2010 at 11:19 am

    First, Mike your reference to Muhlegg and his slaughtering everyone else, was his doping time, and he was finally caught.
    On the mass start races—I like them—I think it is good for the sport and it is easy now for good coverage because of short loop concept that is in vogue. But, more importantly, it is liked by television and also by the NA viewing public. The reaction to the Olympics was very positive from the point of view of the coverage, the excitement and this was the biggest viewership in history. Friends, who never had a clue that XC was happening, now talk like they what is going on—a big milestone in my estimation.
    But, more importantly, this means more money for everyone, especially the skiers–if you check the FIS Prize Money list in both sexes the overall World Cup winners were in the the mid 300,000 Swiss francs at the end of the season, down to 30,000 for 10th place overall in both sexes. That’s just the FIS money—now add on the sponsors, suppliers, and government bonuses and you’ve got some people hauling some heavy loads of cash home to the bank. Not the case as little as 5 to 10 years ago.
    Now, for the mass start races themselves, FIS has done the sprint bonuses to break up the pack , now it is up to the racers to start to assert their own strategies to give themselves a better chance to win. Northug’s name comes up as the culprit, as he is able to assert himself at the end of these races and win. It’s not him they should talk about or blame—they should all look inward. I thought Alex Harvey shaped the strategy for the future in Trondheim, when he blew the race up, when he took off for 15-20 kms in the middle of the race. Northug had no gas or the legs to pull off his usual sprint to the finish–he was 5th and there was a spread in times from 1st to the end of the results. Hasn’t really happened since. You can’t let Northug loaf off the back of the pack, km after km, and expect to out duel him on speed to the finish line. Not happening right now.
    Classic in biathlon and NC, not happening in this century, they both have 2 disciplines to deal with now and another makes it a real load. Mike, I like that you put the thought out there.

  • highstream

    August 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    I think Hellner’s point was that x-c skiing is an individual sport of a particular kind, i.e., the individual against him/herself, the course, nature and fellow competitors, while mass start races, especially longer distance one, change the focus away from that almost entirely. It’s also understandable because the bulk of the year what skiers do in training is mostly individual; so why shouldn’t the competition season largely reflect that? I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view and think it would be wise to keep some of the longer distance races as individual events.

  • prairiekid

    August 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    classic skiing in Biathlon, god no! I wouldn’t want to tote around a duffle bag, skate ski bag, classic ski bag and rifle case.

    I think the amount of wins Northug gets because of mass starts is truly quite small. He is the strongest skier and does as little possible work as possible in mass starts to still get the win. If it was a individual start he would just have to ski harder. He has proved he is the best allrounder. It would be different if he had only ms podiums.

  • Bill Wells

    August 6, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    I wonder if team tactics in mass start distances races are just starting to evolve. It seems like the teams without good sprinters would do everything that they could to get a breakaway going and at least wear down the sprinters, but you just don’t see it happening successfully very much if at all.

    Biathlon and NC used to have classic skiing. I think it was called ‘skiing’ back in those days.

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