When he was a kid, Robin Bryntesson skied a lot. That’s not unusual for a Swede.
But then he got some news that definitely set him apart from his many teammates: he had diabetes.
“My doctor told me that my skiing career was over,” he explained in an e-mail.
Like any fiercely competitive athlete, Bryntesson didn’t take the news lying down. He kept skiing and went on to win a World Junior Championship, then a World Cup team sprint with Emil Jonsson.
“Then I call my doctor and say that my career is not over, maybe yours,” Bryntesson joked.
These days, he doesn’t get so many World Cup starts, but that’s due as much to Sweden’s strength and depth as a ski nation as much as anything else – Bryntesson still excels at distances from sprints to the 90 k Vasaloppet, and is still seeking starts for his country at the sport’s highest level.
And he’s beloved in Sweden and abroad as the court jester of the ski world, making funny videos that often feature his famous teammates and sometimes go viral. Recent hits have been a well-done music video for Bliz eyewear spoofing the Faith Hill song “This Kiss”, and a promotion for the Östersund World Cup weekend in February that features an anything-but-conventional sprint course.
Things don’t always go smoothly: his quest to win the Vasaloppet ended this year when Bryntesson’s blood sugar crashed late in the race. Despite being more or less delirious (“cross-eyed” was how his support team described it), he finished within 2 minutes of the winner.
And so it’s safe to say that Bryntesson has proven to both himself and his doctor that a diagnosis of diabetes doesn’t mean the end of an athletic career. But a few years after learning he had the disease, Bryntesson realized that there was more he could be doing.
“It started when I sold pink hats in favor of juvenile diabetes fund those first few years,” Brytesson explained. “I donated 12000 SEK (roughly $1600) the first year and later it became more pink clothes and now a camp for children with diabetes. Next summer will be the fifth year of the camp.”
The pink hats for “Team Robin” have become ubiquitous – and in a restrained country of muted wardrobes and Jantelagen, Brytnesson has made bright colors and particularly pink his trademark. The summer camp, called Söckertoppen, had record enrollment this summer and is popular enough that this year there were two different sessions in the mountain area of Idre, one for kids aged 10-13 and another for those aged 14-17.
The name of the camp is something of a play on words: the Swedish translates to “Sugar Top”, which Bryntesson says he means as “Sugar is good!”
“Examples of what the guys and girls where doing those days was to challenge themselves, get to know others in the same situation, roller skiing, climbing peaks, the Masters champion (one swedish tv show), gymnastics, diabetes paths, swimming, disco and banquet,” Bryntesson wrote. “There was lecture by me and a stunning girl who won Paralympic gold in 2014 in Sochi, Helene Ripa. She’s skiing very fast despite an amputated leg and what a wonderful story!”
While there are a variety of summer camps for diabetic children in the U.S. – Olympic skier Kris Freeman, himself a diabetic, regularly visits camps organized by the pharmaceutical company Lilly to give inspirational speches – Bryntesson says that’s not the case in Sweden. So he struck out on his own.
“There is not so many diabetic camps in Sweden and there is no one like ours,” he wrote. “We have taken the best from the athletic world and put that in the diabetic world. We learn from each other and develop together! It took me 10 years with diabetes before I started the camp. And I´m learning something new every day about diabetes. What’s most important is to learn to know your own body! That’s what´s really matters!”
Lately, he has had reason to expand his sights somewhat. Bryntesson was asked to announce the Paralympics in Sochi for Swedish television, an opportunity he relished. That has helped him forge closer ties to the world of disabled athletes, not just those with his own illness.
“It was really very inspiring to be in the Paralympics,” he wrote. “They are amazing, they really show that no mountain is too high! Whether one has an arm, leg, or is blind so they just keep on moving and inspires people worldwide. Even diabetics.”
With summer, and Söckertoppen, behind him, Bryntesson is finishing another project: a technique app called “Superb Skiing” which teaches world-class ski technique while entertaining with Bryntesson’s trademark brand of humor.
Of course, the app has a video trailer, featuring a typically Bryntesson attitude towards life.
“I get many questions about different technology/skiteknik and training,” he wrote as an explanation for why he wanted to make an app. “And one time for 1.5 years ago, when we where out and making a movie abaut ‘braking on rollerskis’, then we thought it was time to make an app. Since then we have been working on it. It’s about training in general and skiing in particular, and the goal is to make every owner of the app to a better skier.”
Despite all his other callings, Bryntesson’s biggest goal for the upcoming season is to earn a start at World Championships, which will be held on home turf in Sweden.
“My goal this winter is to try to fight for a ticket to the World Championships at home in Falun,” he wrote. “Although, as usual, Sweden is very tough for sprint spots. Then there will also be many of the longer races with Vasaloppet as the main focus. There I my best finish is 12th place. Which is the goal to beat!”
How can he possibly maintain a full training load and stay one of the fastest skiers in the world, when he’s spending so much time doing diabetes outreach, business ventures, making videos, and entertaining the whole ski world?
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this question,” Bryntesson wrote. “I often have a lot of energy over besides training so that makes many projects coming up. I also like to make movies, it gives me even more energy. I like to have fun and I try to show that in many of the films that we do! It can sometimes take a lot of time, true. But I think it is worth every minute. If life is fun, then the good results can come.”
The “Superb Skiing” app is available for download from Google Play here for $5.40.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.