Dr. Ian Duncan’s first phone call to Vegard Ulvang two years ago met a little dead air. It wasn’t that Ulvang, the executive director of the International Ski Federation’s cross-country committee, didn’t want to talk. He couldn’t at the time.
The former Norwegian cross-country skiing superstar had the Olympics to tend to.
Last summer, Duncan, a world-renowned National Multiple Sclerosis Society researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had his second chance with Ulvang on a bike ride.
During one of his stem-cell advisory trips in Norway, Duncan arranged to meet Ulvang and his family. Already chummy with eight-time Olympic gold medalist Bjørn Daehlie, the MS Society’s first ambassador at the American Birkebeiner in 2009, Duncan wanted to persuade both Daehlie and his former teammate, Ulvang, to come to Wisconsin for the 2012 Birkie.
For Daehlie, the decision to ski North America’s largest ski marathon three years ago was fairly easy. His mother had MS, a chronic and often disabling disease that affects the central nervous system. Daehlie contacted Duncan to help her.
Aside from being a professor, BVMS, PhD and FRCPath, Duncan was also a leading researcher in determining how cell transplants could repair MS-damaged nerve fibers. The connection between the Wisconsin doctor and Daehlie led the retired skier to come to the U.S. on behalf of MS research. Participating in the Birkie was secondary, but it generated a lot of attention.
Three years later, Duncan hoped to attract two Norwegian ski celebrities to the event as MS research ambassadors. After learning that Daehlie couldn’t make it, Duncan asked Vegard, who had already agreed to participate in his first Birkie, for some help.
“I simply said, ‘Why don’t you get Bjørn to go with you?’ ” Duncan recalled in a phone interview.
The two Norwegians had a long history of training together and co-hosting a television travel series called “Guys on Tour.” They might as well be a package deal.
“He said, ‘The problem is, if [Daehlie] came we would just race the whole way,’ ” Duncan said.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
In the Wisconsin Chapter of the MS Society’s fourth year as the American Birkebeiner’s “Skiers for Cures” cause, Ulvang stood alone just fine. The 48-year-old finished second in the 54-kilometer classic race from Cable to Hayward, Wis., in 2:51.17.1. He was less than two seconds behind winner David Chamberlain of Boulder Nordic Sport.
That was pretty good considering the six-time Olympic gold medalist said he aiming for time rather than place. Retired from racing but extremely active, Ulvang recently skied 800 miles to the South Pole to celebrate its discovery 100 years ago. He finished Dec. 14 with three others, and just over two months later, traveled to the U.S. with his wife and two daughters.
For 13-year-old Nora and 11-year-old Rune, it was their first time in the states. They visited New York City first and arrived in northern Wisconsin a few days before the Birkie.
On Thursday, the whole crew skied with several MS fundraisers and donors at a “Ski with Vegard” session. Along parts of the Birkie trail, the legendary World Champion gave technique tips to the group.
After the ski, Duncan said the fundraiser and sale of Birkie MS pins raised more than $31,000 for MS research. Ulvang’s easygoing personality and dedication to the sport paired with his athletic accomplishments made him a no-brainer for the ambassador position, Duncan said. Who better to follow Daehlie?
“I call them our bookends,” Duncan said. “Bjørn on one end and Vegard on the other. You couldn’t get two bigger names in skiing.”
FasterSkier had the opportunity to chat with Ulvang on Thursday, two days before the race. He talked about everything from competing to recovery and the big picture when it comes to international cross-country skiing.
FasterSkier: How has your trip gone so far?
Vegard Ulvang: It’s so fun to meet and engage people. [Americans] like cross-country. I’m impressed.
FS: Why did you decide to come?
VU: For me, it was a great opportunity just to see this part of America. I brought my family so it’s a combination. It’s our winter vacation. We’re having a fantastic time.
FS: What are your training and race expectations like these days?
VU: No expectations. … I’m fit. I ski quite often, five to six times a week, but I never compete anymore so it’s more a question of time and priority. I follow my girls to the races every weekend now instead of racing myself. If I race too much I will be disappointed because the feeling will never be as it was so I prefer staying with the old memories.
I also have some back problems. I had two surgeries at the end of my career and they are good for diagonal and not good for double poling. So I am going for the uphills now, not for double poling.
FS: How have you recovered since your 800-mile expedition in December?
VU: Quite good. I got my weight back during Christmas, two or three weeks after. I was a little bit tired for a while but I’m OK. I lost 18 kilos (nearly 40 pounds). That’s quite a lot, but I added 10 before I started so the net loss was only eight (18 pounds) and that’s acceptable. I was skinny but not too skinny.
FS: Since taking on the role of FIS Cross-Country committee chairman in 2006, how has your perspective changed from being a full-time athlete?
VU: A lot. As an athlete, you see it, ‘What is the best benefit for me? What events, what’s good for me?’ When you stop, you have a much wider angle. You see organizations from all viewpoints.
FS: How much does television dictate the direction of the sport?
VU: For the World Cup circuits, [we are] depending on TV coverage. All professional sports depend on TV coverage. If not for TV, we are dead, or we are a much smaller sport. There would be no prize money. We could not afford the travel costs or whatever. All the economy of the sport is based on television.
That was the first thing that I realized, that we have to cooperate closely with TV to make a product that people like to see [and] is not so expensive to produce, which makes some limitations of course.
[That] makes some changes that, in my head, have been really necessary to do. But still, we have to be aware of not changing too much because if you change all of the sport, you change it to something else. That’s a balance. In my opinion, we have found that balance.
FS: What has that balance entailed?
VU: We have the same distances that we had always. For the men, we have the 15 [k], the 30 and the 50. We have the sprints in addition. It’s been challenging, but I think that we have a balance between history, culture, the main values of cross-country. We have nature, forests, white snow on the trees. We have uphills, we have downhills.
We shouldn’t ski in a flat stadium around, that’s not cross-country. We have to be in the forest; [there are] some basic values that we have to stay with, even if TV wants something else or it’s easy to produce it in another way, and I think we have done that.
We have had some mistakes along the way with some bad organizations of course, but all over, I’m really happy for the development that has been going on for the past 20 years, which means introducing the mass starts, the pursuits, the sprints and still we have spent a lot of time with [making] the courses wide enough, uphills, downhills, curves, standardization, to make the same courses here as in Norway as in Russia, that’s very important.
Common competition rules [are] always developing. … Athletes are creating new ideas and we are running after, making the rules.
FS: How much more do you expect the sport to change?
VU: It’s a continuous process. The world is going faster around now than it did 30 years ago, but we shouldn’t change too much and not change for [the sake of] change.
The product that we have now, I mean the competition program and the championships, is good. I think it will stay for many, many years. But of course you never know what will happen. The athletes started to skate and we have to split the talent. … The masters like me come after and make the rules.
FS: What new ideas are cropping up within FIS?
VU: You never know what happens, but from our side, there’s more fine-tuning of the competition concepts. We hope to have another world championships for the Tour de Ski. (Note: Ulvang innovated the Tour de Ski multi-stage event).
We have three years where we have World Championships, Olympic Games, and then one rest year like this year. We see clearly that the interest from the media falls when they have no championships so we want to organize that world ski championships like Tour de Ski in February/March in 2016, 2020 and 2024.
That’s the next goal that we are working for. That’s a political work; it needs support from the TV companies, which we haven’t got yet. It needs support from the FIS council, the presidential guys. (Laughs.) So we are working on that, that’s our next project actually.
FS: Any foreseeable changes on the World Cup?
VU: We are working with improving every single organizer, making better events, better experiences for the spectators who come and for the fans.
We have [a habit of] hiding away our stars. They go into the forest and they come back and they come into the [stadium] area, but you never see them. When we bring fans or spectators to that ski race, we want them to see them … we want to bring them closer to their stars. Our idea, actually, is to improve every single event, which we are.
FS: Thank you!
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.