“Maybe it’s not the fitness, but the head that makes some athletes winners?” – An Interview with Thomas Alsgaard

Topher SabotNovember 1, 20106

With five Olympic gold medals, and another six from the World Championships, Thomas Alsgaard ranks among the all-time greats of the sport.  And as the anchor for the Norwegian relay team for half a decade, he became known for his impressive finishing kick, and his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in stunning fashion.

FasterSkier recently had the opportunity to interview Alsgaard, discussing subjects ranging from who has the best technique on the World Cup (Johan Olsson and Lukas Bauer among others), the rumors of an Olympic comeback (never was going to happen), to who would win a sprint finish between him and Petter Northug.

Alsgaard currently works for the Norwegian television station NRK and runs the professional marathon team, Team United Bakeries, for which he will race this winter.

Inspired by Alsgaard’s prowess, FasterSkier and Madshus bring you the “Champion Moments” Photo Contest. Enter here.

FasterSkier: Why did you choose to become a professional ski racer?

Thomas Alsgaard: I never decided to become that. It more or less happened. I have competed since I was three years old, and I have always loved to ski and develop. When I was 19, I thought I had to make a choice between school and sport. That’s the first time I thought: I want to be the best.

FS: You had great successes racing at a very young age, winning a gold in the 1994 Olympics.  Did you feel pressure to replicate your early successes? How did this impact you?

TA: No, because we had eight boys on the team, all of whom were world or Olympic champions. It was easy for me to hide behind the others. Especially since Dæhlie was so strong. I felt everyone gave me time.

FS: You attended the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as part of the media.  Was it difficult for you to be stuck on the sidelines?

TA: Yes and no. During the races I often think back to my own old races. It reminds me of the extreme feeling during a gold medal race. I really miss being in that good shape, and position. But then, after the race, they meet us. And that part I am very happy to skip now. It’s nice to just walk home after the race, not having to explain everything.

FS: Do you see yourself remaining involved professionally in the sport?

TA: I can’t see myself not doing so. I really love the sport, and I am happy to work with NRK.  Besides that, I run my own team – Team United Bakeries – aiming for success on the International Ski Federation’s (FIS’s) Marathon Cup. Check out our presentations on Youtube.

FS: There were rumors in the time leading up to the Olympics that you might try to qualify for the Norwegian team.  Was this something you seriously considered?

TA: No. Never thought about it. Since I was going to commentate the Norwegian Championship, I just thought it would be fun to take part in one of the races, if I could start early, do my race, and then commentate the rest. What happened after that, I don’t know. People just don’t seem to understand that I quit professional skiing seven years ago.

FS: What do you think of the current race formats like the mass start 50 k, the longer sprints, and the Tour de Ski?  Would you have liked the chance to race in an event like the Tour?

TA: I don’t know. I think am just tired of all of [FIS Cross-Country Committee Chairman Vegard] Ulvang’s ideas, desperately trying to change the sport into something more popular. Every year – new ideas. It’s sad that they seem to forget the heart and soul of cross-country skiing. Sure, Tour de Ski looks fun to race, but even as a commentator, it’s hard to follow all the changes and rules.

FS: What are your plans for the 2011 season?  Will you continue to race on the marathon circuit?

TA: I will continue to race. I have planned to do eight of the races. But not with the same ambitions as ten years ago. I am responsible for the whole team, which means a lot of organizing. These days, my family and work have first priority. Then I train as well as possible with the time I have left. Hopefully, it (together with luck, and a lot of experience) will be enough to at least fight for victory in some races.

FS: How much training did you put in this past season, and how does that compare to the time you put in when you were racing for the Norwegian National team?

TA: My training diary is out on the internet. But I think I did 450 to 500 hours. My goal is to make 50 hours every month. But it’s difficult. Now, I train about the same all year. When I was a pro, I trained about 80 hours a month during the training season, and down to 30 to 40 when the races started. But the biggest change, which makes the biggest difference, is the focus. Now, I just do whatever training is possible at the place I am, with the time available. And I often to do the activities I like the most, instead of activities that would make me a better skier. My goal now is to feel good. Not to win medals.

FS: What skier on the World Cup right now would you say has the best technique?

TA: A lot of skiers have very effective technique. I like Johan Olsson, Lukas Bauer in classic, [Ola Vigen] Hattestad (in shape) for sprint, and Axel Teichmann and Ole Einar Bjørndalen in skate. These, I think, are skiers with good feeling.

FS: Any skier at the World Cup level has reached a very high level of achievement and is a highly proficient skier.  How important do you think technique is at this point?  Do you think that technique and fitness are equally important for World Cup skiers?

TA: With all the changes the last 15 years, the level of the different elements needed to win have also changed. You must always have the right balance between fitness and technique, but maybe it has moved towards fitness.

FS: Even with the great successes of Petter Northug and Marit Bjoergen, many Norwegians were left unsatisfied with the overall Norwegian performance at the 2010 Olympics. Why do you think there were no other top contenders in the men’s distance events? Do you see any overarching flaws with Norwegian skiing right now?

TA: I don’t know the reason. During the summer and autumn, all the skiers on the team seem very strong. But only Petter is able to take the next step when the important competitions begin. The training is okay, the strength is okay, but never underestimate the mental part.

FS: The U.S. has made great strides in recent years, with top skiers like Kikkan Randall, Andy Newell and Kris Freeman posting strong results.  But there is still a long way to go.  What do you see as the most important considerations for a country like the U.S., where skiing is not a mainstream sport?

Alsgaard on his way to gold in 1994

TA: You have a lot of talents, and I think all of the cross-country world would like to see the U.S. with even stronger results. I don’t know much about the philosophy of training in the U.S., but I think you have all you need. Just make everything simple. Forget all the tiny little details, and focus on the hard work. It’s simple, and no one makes things simpler than Petter Northug in Norway. It’s not always so important what you do, but how you do it.

FS: Do you think there is more or less doping by nordic skiers than when you were racing?  What is your opinion on sanctions against the Russians, in response to the number of Russian athletes caught doping recently?

TA: I think there’s definitely less doping now than in the 1990s. It takes time to turn a whole culture like in Russia. But it seems that WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] is doing a great job, so let’s hope for the future that the young Russian skiers have a new way of thinking.

We also have to remember that for some countries, success in sport is the only chance for a better life. I think that if the athletes have nothing to lose, it’s very difficult to make them follow the rules, unfortunately.

FS: Were you ever concerned about the fact that your competition may have been cheating while you were racing?

TA: We talked a lot about it, but we agreed that we should not be concerned or use energy on things we could not control. We could only do our best, and hope that if someone cheated, the system would take care of them.

FS: You had some of the greatest finishes in the history of nordic skiing.  Do you think you could have beaten Petter Northug to the finish line?

TA: A dollar for every time I met that question…

FS: What do you see as the best result of your career?

TA: It’s not easy to choose. Let’s put it this way – [the Olympic] 30 k in Lillehammer was a huge surprise. And technically, at the time, an extremely strong race. In [the 1998] Nagano [Olympics], both in the pursuit and relay, I felt the strongest I have ever been. I don’t think my lactate ever was past 1.0. The 30 k at [2003 World World Championships venue] Val di Fiemme was mentally very strong. With everything that happened in the months before, it was a huge relief.

FS: What is it that separates the greats like Bjorn Daehlie, Petter Northug, and yourself from the rest of the very good skiers?

TA: A lot of skiers train basically the same, and are equally strong during summer and autumn. Still, it can be a huge different between them in a very important race. So maybe it’s not the fitness but the head that makes some athletes winners?

— Maddy Wendt contributed reporting

Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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  • bhusaby

    November 1, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Topher- Really good reporting. Thank you!

  • patrickkidd

    November 1, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    “Just make everything simple. Forget all the tiny little details, and focus on the hard work.”


  • glund

    November 2, 2010 at 1:37 am


  • Cloxxki

    November 2, 2010 at 5:28 am

    Congrats FS on an exclusive with such a great champion!

    Perhaps it’s just a coincidence… A lot of “oh we are so clean, we just try harder” noise from Norwegian skiers lately. The one clean wintersports nation.
    Like we used to get from American cyclists.
    And from Contador, before he’d tell the public of his positive recently.

    I love Scandinavian athletes, they ARE dedicated, and over the whole seem like nicer people than some. But I’m not too naive anymore. History and understanding are catching up.

  • davord

    November 2, 2010 at 8:02 am

    I respect your enthusiasm Cloxxki, but I am afraid you just opened up a big can of worms with that statement.

  • chadsalmela

    November 3, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Great points about FIS race disciplines. If you are an avid follower, even “expert” commentator, it is very hard to follow what the FIS is doing from week to week, year to year–and imparting that to someone who probably follows it even less is problematic. Fairness to all physical and technical attributes of “the best skiers” seems to be part of what’s at play with FIS, not just TV viewership, but I’m not sure they are succeeding at making it completely fair, nor “user friendly” for the ski fan; and even less so for the passive fan. If you are Kikkan, at the top of your career, and you draw a classic sprint at the Olympics and not a freestyle sprint simply by how the calendar falls, try explaining this to someone who doesn’t understand why she had trouble defending her silver medal from Worlds the year before. Most Olympic swimming medallists focus on and win at a specific discipline, and the discipline doesn’t change every year. Adding distance to the sprint is just making it not so much sprinting anymore. If it’s a sprint, make it a sprint. If it’s a Tour de Ski, I get it, but some greater standardization on the world cup is probably going to gel the sport way more than continually trying to find the zinger event that will get people watching the sport. Understanding what the hell is happening is the most direct route to popularity.

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