During Stage 7 of the Tour de Ski in Toblach, Italy, spectators standing at just the right spot on the race course could have witnessed something surprising enough to make them choke on their cappuccinos: two Swedish fans screaming at the top of their lungs for Kikkan Randall, the American cross-country ski racer.
The scene made little sense, until one realized that the fans were the parents of Emil Jönsson, the star Swedish sprinter and boyfriend of Anna Haag—the member of the Swedish women’s team whom Randall had visited last June for a training camp.
After blossoming last summer, the friendship between the Swedes and Americans has continued to flower through the competition season, injecting some fun into what can sometimes be a dreary winter. And now, the relationship may be developing even further: The two squads are mulling plans for a joint, group training camp in Europe next summer, according to coaches from both teams.
“I think it could be the start of something good,” Rickard Grip, the Swedish women’s coach, told FasterSkier. “We will see what happens.”
The growing ties between the two teams have kept things interesting on the four-month-long World Cup circuit, Randall said. The tour can sometimes wear down the Americans, since they’re staying in Europe, away from their families and friends, for the entire season.
“It’s just made it even more like home here this winter,” Randall said. “When we’re all staying at the same hotel, we can go have a meal with another team, talk about some different things. And so, I think it just keeps everybody fresh.”
She has met the Swedes for coffee, skied with Haag and others on the trails, and expects to do even more throughout the rest of the winter.
It’s not just the Americans who are benefitting, though. Jönsson, the Swedish sprint star, said that he’s enjoyed having a few more people on the circuit “to talk shit with.” For the Scandinavians, he said, cross-country skiing can be a matter of “life or death,” and the connections he’s developed with the Americans have helped him keep some perspective.
“I think it’s a little bit too serious in Sweden and Norway,” he said. “It’s good for us just to relax, a little bit.”
But the exchanges between the two teams have been more than just idle chatter, and a chance for the Swedes to practice their English. They’ve also extended to sport.
At their camp in Sweden last summer, Grip said, Haag was keeping an eye on Randall, who has developed over the last few years into one of the best sprinters in the world.
“[Randall] moves really well on the skis, and has good technique,” Grip said. “Anna was looking, a little bit, at what
The Swedish women, Grip added, have a lot to learn from athletes who come from different cultures.
“If you’re being too small, and you’re thinking, thinking of your skiing and [only] everything like that, I think you also block your opportunity to be a better and better skier,” he said. “You can talk always about training and training, but…personality has to grow up.”
While American culture may be new and different, one of the main reasons the Swedes have engaged with Randall and the rest is the growing strength of the U.S. women’s team, according to Chris Grover, the American head coach.
That strength, Grover added, is also why a joint training camp might work out.
The details of such a camp won’t be settled until the spring, and it’s by no means guaranteed that one will happen. But Grover said that he had discussed the idea with Grip, and that the Swedes are “very open to it”—a sign, he added, of a growing level of respect for the Americans from some of the Scandinavian ski powerhouses.
In the past, the Norwegians or Swedes might have been reticent about giving the Americans an opportunity to train with, and learn from, their own athletes. But now, the Americans actually have something to offer, Grover said.
“Obviously, they have a lot of talent in their own squads,” he said. “But I think some of those teams can see that we have a really talented group of young ladies, too, so that they could get something out of having our ladies there to train with. Otherwise, it just becomes more logistics for them.”
Other collaborations in the works include a potential visit by Haag to North America for some late-season racing this year; she told FasterSkier during the Tour de Ski that she hasn’t made up her mind about a trip.
Randall also said she would invite the Swedes to the U.S. team’s annual spring camp in Oregon.
“We’ll see if they come,” she said.
But regardless of how all the plans play out, it’s clear that both the Americans and the Swedes have forged some bonds that will last for a while.
“I think it’s awesome,” Jönsson said. “Me and Anna—we have found friends for life.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.