Its not often an American gets the chance to see the Norwegian National Championships. When I got the chance, I jumped at it.
This year the National Championships were in Voss, population 14,000. It is situated in the mountains about a five hour train ride from Oslo. The last time Voss held Nationals was in 1964. It was long overdue.
Langrenn, or cross country skiing, took over the city. The city braced for its population to double as fans and teams from all over Norway streamed in to compete in the four-event championships.
I stayed with my family in Voss, who conveniently live 3 kilometers from the stadium. They live on a big farm house and had rented out several buildings to teams from all over Norway. My accommodations couldn’t have been more convenient.
Voss redesigned their trails especially for the national championships to be more fan-friendly. They were anything but easy. I previewed the course the day before the championships, and it twisted brutally up and down the mountain slopes. The crucible of the course came early at about 3 k where a huge hill, or motbakken, loomed. It climbed cruelly up for half a kilometer, easing briefly for a few V2s or kick double poles, and then climbed again. The races were won and lost here. If you had the fitness, this is where you made the gaps.
Two things that stood out early to my American eyes were the publicity and focus at the national championships. As I was skiing the course the day before, the national broadcasting channel, NRK, was setting up cameras at all the key points of the race. They even installed a cable reaching from one end of the stadium to the other, upon which a camera sped back and forth to better capture the action.
Before the events that day a helicopter crew swooped around the stadium. Reports from all over Norway did features for their networks, interrogating wax techs and national team members.
Organizers constructed a special warming cabin over the finishing straight for the King of Norway, who attended the first day of the games.
Vendors lined up their trucks in parking lots and along roadways. The coverage was unthinkable compared to our own championships. The eyes of the nation were on the tiny mountain town of Voss.
Unreality set in fast. I’m the sort of person that gets up at 3:00 am to watch the live coverage of World Cup events on TV. I know the names and backgrounds of all the Norwegian ski stars. Finn hagen Krogh, a young Norwegian that had breakout results last year in the Falun mini-tour, was staying in one of my family’s houses. I hung out with him.
While skiing on the trails I encountered Thomas Alsgaard classic skiing right next to me. I introduced myself and skied with him for 5 kilometers. I met Åge Skinstad, the head of the Norwegian Ski Federation, and raced him in a Sparking (sled race) in the stadium. I went out one night to a restaurant and noticed Tord Asle Gjørdalen sitting at the next table and I introduced myself. I had coffee with Therese Johaug. My life wasn’t real.
There was much publicized betting between grizzled veterans and their younger counterparts. Both Kristian Skjeldal and Sjur Røthe are native to Voss, and local celebrities. Skjeldal and Alsgaard had a bet with each other over the result in the 15 k freestyle individual start.
Alsgaard would prevail in his customary alchemical fashion, posting an astonishing fourth place overall (he was on the podium because Andrew Musgrave was not eligible for a medal as a British citizen) despite his commitments to his job as a commentator for NRK.
Alsgaard was also involved in another bet with a fellow commentator that involved Alsgaard buying him a bottle of wine if he finished within one minute of the top qualifying time in the sprint. His colleague finished 2 seconds inside the time despite falling on one of the downhills. These bets added to the drama and fun of the national championships.
The atmosphere at nationals was singular. Buses full of school children arrived covered in face paint and carrying gigantic flags. They set up a mini ski jump alongside one of the courses chicanes. There were fires lit everywhere where people sat around grilling hot dogs. Tents lined the course where people had camped out for four days.
There was a food pavilion with long tubs that blew out warm air for people to heat up after enduring the bitter weather the first few days. A local sausage company, Vossafår, gave away free samples and had daily Sparking races where they gave away gigantic sausages. Old guys walked around in traditional Norwegian Bunads with accordions playing music to rile up the crowd. It was one swirling, four-day party.
The level of competition can’t be understated. Teams from around the nation come here riding a peak, looking for a breakout performance that might put them in the running to make a World Cup team.
All the big stars where here: Northug, Sundby, Røthe, Bransdal, Øysten ‘Pølse’ Pettersen, Bjørgen, Johaug, Falla, Kristofferson, Casperson, etc. Peter may have opted out after a day of competition and a dismal 40th finish, but nevertheless nationals matter, even to the international stars. No matter what they’ve done on the World Cup, showing up to nationals is a national expectation.
The stars didn’t have it all their own way. The level of skiing here is insane. It wasn’t uncommon to see some completely unknown Norwegian from a small town from the North edge out someone who finished top 10 in the World Cup the previous weekend. The supreme depth and talent of the Norwegian skiing is obvious. There’s tremendous pressure coming up from all over Norway to be the next big name.
It ended as quickly as it began, the stadium suddenly bereft. The main takeaway for me was the connectedness of the ski culture. Norwegian skiers are so good because their ski culture is so rich. The path from face painted kid to international superstar is plain to se at these championships.
The public gets access to the big ski stars and you realize they’re real people too. As they say, ‘Vi er født med ski på beina’ (we are born with skis on our feet). Seven-year-olds fly along the trails with perfect technique, and they train and race from the time they’re young.Then they race fast enough to make one of the top clubs and they train and race, train and race. And then they have a break out race at nationals, pop up on the World Cup, and the cycle of training and racing continues.
NM showcased an astonishing depth of ski racers who train and race and don’t take short cuts. Sixteen-year-olds are motivated and willing to put in the time because skiers carry status. They’re professional from a young age and toeing the line with the best over and over. It is a ski nation with a living, breathing ski culture. It was amazing to witness it for a few days.