What do Vegard Ulvang, Bjørn Dæhlie, Marcus Hellner, Charlotte Kalla, Alex Harvey, and Devon Kershaw have in common? Aside from gold medals from the Olympic Games or World Championships?
All of them, at one point or another, were coached by Inge Bråten, a fixture on the World Cup circuit who died last week at the age of 63.
Bråten led his country’s national team from 1990 to 1994—a period in which Norway collected no fewer than 15 Olympic and World Championship gold medals. After a hiatus, he worked with the Swedish national team from 2005 to 2007; the country won three gold and two bronze medals in the 2006 Games in Torino. Then, Bråten coached the Canadians during their home Olympic year, in the winter of 2009-2010, with several athletes finishing just off the podium in Vancouver.
Bråten didn’t coach last winter, but he was still a presence on the World Cup, as a commentator for Eurosport. According to Sweski.com, he made his last broadcast on March 18th, and was admitted to the hospital four days later with an aggressive form of leukemia. He died less than a month afterwards, prompting an outpouring of grief from his former athletes and colleagues around the world.
On Monday, FasterSkier talked with Canada’s Devon Kershaw about the year that Bråten spent with his team.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
FasterSkier: Did you know much about Inge before he was hired? Was your initial reaction to hearing the news?
Devon Kershaw: My initial reaction was, ‘Jesus, we go through a lot of coaches.’ That’s a joke…but, I knew of Inge, of course. His palmares are pretty long. Recently, before he coached us, he worked with the Swedes, and I heard nothing but great things about him, like from [athletes] Peter Larsson and Mats Larsson. Of course, being a kid growing up in Canada and loving skiing, Norway was just crushing it, with Vegard Ulvang and Bjørn Dæhlie. Inge’s a big personality, so even back then you knew he was the coach of the Norwegian National Team, and the Norwegian National Team was probably at its strongest—at least, the men. I was keen to get to know him when I knew he was hired. Excited to work with a legend, really. My initial reaction was, ‘Wow, this is going to be pretty interesting—to get to know somebody who when I was 12 years old, I knew his name.’
FS: Had you met him before?
DK: I knew Inge a bit. We’d talked on the World Cup, and he was always really friendly. We chatted and stuff, even before he was coaching. He was friends with [former Canadian national team leader] Dave Wood, so I knew who he was.
FS: What was he like, as a coach?
DK: Inge was an amazing big picture person, and he had amazing belief in me, and leadership. As a team leader, he’s probably the best I’ve ever worked with. Anything you needed to get done, he was happy to get it done. Nothing was out of the question. I remember him doing things—for example: We didn’t have any sports drink. We were in Europe, so he called one of his friends that worked at [a sports drink company], and then, next thing, boom, you have sports drink and energy bars for the year. He’d just make things happen.
FS: One of your teammates tweeted something about how Inge had the ability to light a fire under an athlete like nobody else.
DK: I just remember him telling me, not, ‘You can be,’ but ‘You are the best skier in the world, if you want to be.’ It was a deep, deep belief. And we got to become pretty good friends too. I work best when my coach
relationship is like that, so I got a lot out of him, for sure.
The way he could instill belief in you was pretty unbelievable. And disarm you. If you were too nervous, he could disarm you completely. I’m the kind of athlete—I always think it’s the end of the world, but it’s just skiing.
I remember him, throughout the summer, if [I] had a good workout—him looking me in the eyes, and saying, ‘Now you’re there.’ ‘You’re at the level of the best skier in the world.’ And you believe it. He had a real way of instilling belief in you.
FS: What did you take away from working with him?
DK: The biggest thing I took away from it was confidence, and that was pretty instrumental in having that shift—to go from being on the results sheet…[being] a good skier, to really believing that I belonged at the top. And [feeling] more comfortable. My year with Inge made me feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin on the World Cup circuit. He legitimized Canada. I feel like he really legitimized Canada.
FS: Is there a difference when you hear someone with Inge’s background, someone from Europe telling you that you can be the best in the world, versus someone from the U.S. or Canada?
DK: It’s sad to admit, but it is true. Especially if you’re a type of athlete, like me, that doesn’t believe it himself. It made a big impact, absolutely—it makes a huge impact.
FS: Do you know why he left after a year? It sounds like there was some tension within the program at that time?
DK: It’s no secret—for sure, I think there were some serious changes within Cross Country Canada after the Olympics, after that season. I guess there hadn’t been that many changes over [the previous] 12 years. We had a new executive director coming in, just some serious changes. Dave [Wood] decided that he didn’t want to stick with the program in the role that was offered. My sense of it was, we didn’t know what our budget was, and…[Bråten] wanted to coach another year, but I don’t know if his commitment was deep enough to coach to 2014. My sense and understanding, from the outside looking in, was the program was looking for somebody to lead the program into the next quadrennial, going into Sochi.
Where I think Inge could have been the most beneficial was as a head coach, team leader, that type of thing—and then had trainers around him. At least in Canada, he wasn’t the best trainer I’ve ever had, [with] programs and technique and that sort of side. But on the leadership role, team manager, head coach-type thing, he was phenomenal. That’s where his strength really was.
It can’t be easy for Inge—he was  at the time, and his [family is] in Norway, his life was in Norway. For sure, that must have factored into it as well, not just money and direction of the program, but Inge, he’s no spring chicken at that point. He was interested to coach for 2011, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out.
FS: Did you know he was sick? Had you heard anything before last week?
DK: It was a total shock. It came as a complete shock when I heard—I didn’t even know he wasn’t feeling well. In Oslo [in March], he’d mentioned he wasn’t going to make it up [to] Holmenkollen. That was the last I heard, and then after the season he got ahold of me—just a short e-mail, just one line, really, saying, ‘I knew you could always be one of the best in the world, and congrats on an inspiring year.’ And then, next thing I heard, he’d passed away.
He’d lived a big full life. I know that gets thrown around a little easily, but he had lived that life.
FS: Anything else you’d want to add?
DK: I’d just want to thank him, many times…look into his eyes and say ‘thank you so much,’ because he really touched me as a person, and changed my confidence, for sure. Changed the way I believed in myself, and how I do business on the World Cup. For sure, it’s just very sad to hear skiing has lost someone with so much experience. And, really, personality. There’s not a party or conversation that Inge wouldn’t be in.
He loved it. He really just embodied the passion of our sport. He could never step away from it. He just lived and breathed it. There’s not many of us that can really say that they truly and deeply, 100-percent-felt, through-and-through, that they loved the sport. And I think Inge really embodied that. He just has a true passion for the sport. That’s not lip service. He lived it.
FS: So, it sounds like it’s been a pretty tough last few days for you guys. First Inge, and then today, Toronto Star amateur sports correspondent Randy Starkman—who covered cross-country skiing—also passed away.
DK: I can’t believe it. I just thought he had pneumonia. 2012, and he’s a really fit 51-year-old. Who dies of pneumonia at 51? That’s super-tragic.
He interviewed me when I sucked. I was awful. I wasn’t being interviewed by anyone. He was just passionate about sport. I feel like he was behind me all the way, and I feel like that’s pretty unique. If you’re not in Quebec, I think that’s pretty unique. With the skier cross guy, Nick [Zoricic], and Sarah Burke, 2012’s been rough on many fronts.
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.