(Some details and insights in this story come from a book recently published in Norwegian, Min Historie: Northug as told by Petter Northug to Jonas Forsang. This piece was written by twenty-one-year-old Maks Zechel, a Canadian cross-country skier living and training in Norway.)
Arguably the greatest male cross country skier of all time. Certainly the most sensational. Undeniably the skier who has changed the sport more than anyone else.
There never has been, and never will be, another skier like Petter Northug.
Petter grew up in the rural community of Mosvik, about two hours by car from Trondheim. Much of his childhood was spent working on the family farm and participating in a wide range of sports, an upbringing similar to that of many of Norway’s best cross country skiers (Marit Bjørgen included).
Already at the age of nine, an insatiable desire to win began to grow in Petter. It didn’t matter whether it was skiing, ski jumping, track and field, or soccer—there was nothing Petter wanted more than to achieve victory. But until he broke through as a cross country skier at the age of 15, he was incapable of winning anything.
Petter credits much of his later success to the number of times that he lost during his youth. To some, these losses as a child might seem insignificant when compared to how often he succeeded as a teenager and adult, but even these early losses were a matter of life or death for Petter. In his new book, Min Historie, he describes the obsession with which he chased stronger and more talented skiers. For years it seemed impossible that he would ever beat them, as one devastating loss followed another. Nonetheless, his mind was always set on winning, whether he finished in the middle of the pack or as the runner-up.
Smaller and less talented than his rivals, there was nothing Petter could do but train harder and better than anyone else. Even as a young child at school, Petter would ask to leave class to go to the bathroom, and instead do push-ups in secret. After school he would go straight from training to his chores on the family farm. An active childhood filled with hard work and training in a multitude of sports would lay the foundation needed for the massive, grueling training hours he would become known for as a junior and senior.
One of the most important figures in Petter’s life was his grandfather. A shy child without many other children to play with, he describes his grandfather as his best friend. From his deathbed, his last words to Petter were: “Show them your back, boy”.
Once Petter began to win, he became unstoppable. While more talented skiers had been winning for years with ease, Petter had learned how to train harder and better than any of them. During his four years as a junior, he became the first Norwegian to win eight national junior titles out of a possible eight. In his final junior year, the same year as the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, he won all four gold medals at the World Junior Championships.
With his success in the junior ranks, people began discussing the possibility of Petter being named to the Norwegian Olympic Team. At that time Norway lacked strong skate skiers who could compete with the stronger German and Italian teams, and Petter’s strongest technique was skate.
The last chance to qualify for Turin was at the Norwegian National Championships in Kongsberg, just a week before the Olympics were to begin. The 30-kilometer skiathlon would decide the last eight spots on the men’s team.
During the classic leg, Norwegian legend Frode Estil broke away from the rest of the field, leading the race by 30 seconds after the exchange zone. Petter worked together with a chase-pack to reel in Estil (who was his mentor and training partner of some years) during the skate portion of the race. In the final kilometers, Petter sat in the lead pack, gauging the other skiers around him, controlling the pace where it suited him, and preparing to make his move. He was the first skier in the world to truly master the tactics of mass start racing, the effects of which have shaped the world of ski racing that we all know today.
In the final few hundred meters of the race, Petter attacks. A field full of skiers ten years his senior are unable to respond to the junior’s now trademark finishing kick. The excitement in Norway is electric—could this be their best hope for a relay medal at the Olympics?
However, Petter would be denied a spot on the Olympic Team merely because of his age. No junior had ever been named to a Norwegian Olympic Ski Team, and there would be no exceptions made. This infamous decision would later cause a restructuring of leadership in the Norwegian Ski Federation, and would never be forgotten by Petter or the rest of Norway.
The day after beating the entire Norwegian Olympic Team in the skiathlon and still being denied a ticket to the Olympics, Petter raced the anchor leg of the National Championship 3 x 10 k club relay. Also racing the last leg was Norway’s designated anchor-man for the Olympics, Tore Ruud Hofstad. For a furious Petter Northug, this was his best chance for revenge. To put it into Petter’s own words: “When I become pissed off, they may as well pack away the waffle mix and hot dog grills, give me the gold and cancel the entire thing…When I become pissed off, it’s over…Piss me off. See what happens”.
Petter’s teammates from Strindheim IL managed to hang onto the lead group, and handed off to him right alongside Olympic anchor-man Hofstad. Once again Petter appeared to play with Norway’s top skiers. And once again he made it clear that he was Norway’s best hope for an Olympic relay medal as he soared down the finishing stretch to take the win. Screaming passionately in the finish area, Petter famously yelled: “And I am not going to the Olympics?!”.
(2006 men’s relay and skiathlon Kongsberg Norwegian Championships.)
The Norwegian men would place fifth in the Olympic relay, over one minute behind the Italian Olympic champions. They would take only two silver medals in the entire championships, won by Frode Estil in the 15k classic race and Jens Arne Svartedal and Tor Arne Hetland in the team sprint.
Soon after the Olympics, Petter received another opportunity to prove himself on the senior stage, this time at a World Cup in Falun, Sweden. This opportunity could not be denied him as he was the leader of the Scandinavian Cup series at that time (Continental Cup leaders receive a free pass to race on the World Cup).
It’s a 20k skiathlon, his best discipline at the time. In the final kilometer of the race, a crowded lead pack hurtles back towards the stadium. It’s a pack thick with the most recent Olympic medal-winning heroes from all the best-skiing nations. The fight for positions leaves skiers careening towards the finishing stretch, balancing on the knife’s edge of control. Tobias Angerer, at the top of his career as a dominant World Cup skier, manages to pull away from the rest of the field around the final corner. Petter Northug throws himself after Angerer but struggles to close the gap as the rest of the field emerges around him in the homestretch. The previous season’s World Cup overall winner, Axel Teichmann, comes up alongside Petter, and they chase Angerer neck and neck.
At first, it looks impossible that Petter will be able to find another gear. Through the burning pain, the last words of his grandfather echo through his head.
“Show them your back, boy.”
And he begins to inch ahead. Barely. Then he begins to pull ahead more and more, hunted down by a stream of World Cup legends threatening to swallow him before he can reach the finish. Petter looks to have nothing left in the tank, but he continues to accelerate. He finds the finish line in the nick of time to take his first World Cup victory, Angerer and Teichmann whooshing across half a second later.
He remains the youngest male skier to ever win a World Cup race.
(2006 World Cup Falun, Sweden.)
The rest of Petter’s career lit up the cross country skiing world as he became one of the most decorated skiers of all time. His mass start tactics changed ski racing forever, while his raw passion and showmanship raised the entire sport out of the woods and into the international spotlight. He attracted unconventional and controversial sponsorships from Red Bull and Coop, sponsorships that would cause a restructuring of the way the Norwegian Ski Federation worked with their athletes and partners.
Petter made young skiers dream bigger than they ever had before. Petter gave skiers everywhere a reason to strut after winning a finishing sprint against their friends. Petter made skiing cool.
His was not the traditional Norwegian cross country skier’s mentality. Improvement wasn’t something worth celebrating. It wasn’t about having fun. Everything was about winning ski races, about becoming the best. Petter’s dream was to become World Champion, a feat which he would accomplish 13 times over the course of eight years. There are countless decisions and sacrifices behind those gold medals that get lost in the ostentatious, seemingly indifferent, and sometimes arrogant Petter Northug that many know from TV interviews and finish line celebrations.
On December 12th, 2018, Petter announced his retirement from ski racing, visibly moved to tears as he tried to express just how much he had sacrificed from the time that he was a young child until the 2011 World Championships. Petter’s extreme desire to win, known in Norwegian as vinnerskalle, was perhaps above all else what made him so great. For him to achieve his goals, it meant that training and recovery had to be prioritized above all else, including school, relationships, and any social life. There was no room for celebration, even the very night after winning gold in the 50k at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Many of the extremes that he went to in his early career might seem insignificant and unsustainable, but for Petter these details meant everything. If he wanted to become the best, he had to prioritize skiing above all else. There is a reason why he is the most victorious World Champion in men’s skiing history.
His first opportunity to become World Champion came in the 30k skiathlon in Sapporo, 2007. A perfectly executed race ended in devastation when he fell after poling between his legs in the finishing straight, just as he was pulling ahead for the win. The next day he took bittersweet revenge by securing gold for Norway in the relay, obliterating Anders Södergren of Sweden in the last few hundred meters of the race. The Norwegian commentators could be heard yelling, “It becomes 100 meters, it becomes kilometers!”, as he opened up a gap of inconceivable proportions in a matter of seconds. In the finishing area, Petter popularized the term barneskirenn, as he yelled that the race had been a “children’s race”. And nobody watching could argue, because he had truly, astonishingly, made the best skiers in the world look like children.
(Men’s relay, 2007 Sapporo, Japan World Championships.)
Petter’s domination in the finishing sprint began many years before his success as a senior when he was beaten in the last few meters of a race by one of his arch-rivals as a teenager. After that day, he promised himself that he would never lose a finishing sprint again.
Some attribute Petter’s finishing ability to his speed and power. Others say it is because of how well he skis technically. None of them are wrong, but what made Petter best at the end of a race ultimately came down to the fact that winning meant everything—absolutely everything—to him. Coming second didn’t mean anything—he could just as well come last. All he trained towards during the long summer months, for years on end, was the ability to push one gear further at the end of a race, whether it was by working on his technique, endurance, speed, or mental strength. One of the key things that makes a great skier, Petter had realized from a young age, was the ability to tolerate pain. It didn’t matter how tired he was at the end, or if everyone around him was in far better shape than him; if Petter was nearby in the last kilometers of a race, he would dig deeper than anyone else in order to win. And more often than not, he would, because there has never been anyone who has wanted it—needed it—more than him .
(2010 Tour de Ski Stage 2 finish)
(2010 finish of the team sprint Vancouver, Olympics)
The climax of Petter’s career would come in 2011 at the World Championships in Oslo. The pressure leading up to a home World Championships is especially hard for any Norwegian skier, but for Petter, it was more than that—winning was expected of him, not hoped for. Three golds and two silver medals later would cement Petter Northug’s name in the history books as one of the greatest of all time. The Oslo World Championships would make Petter one of the most famous people in all of Norway.
(2011 Oslo, Norway World Championships finish of the 50 k skate.)
(2011 Oslo, Norway World Championships finish of the 30 k skiathlon.)
(2011 Oslo, Norway World Championships finish of the 4 x 10 k relay.)
After the 2011 World Championships, something changed in the psyche of the skiing star that had been obsessed with one thing since he was a little child running races against imaginary competitors around his home in Mosvik. The constant drive, the inability to lose, was gone. After years of sacrificing everything to become the best in the world, he started to try a taste of the “normal” life. His obsession with the details slipped as he began to do all of the things that he had denied himself his entire life. Gone was the focus from his training, which had become nothing in comparison to how he had trained in earlier years.
Despite his lack of focus, he went on to win two golds at the 2013 World Championships in Val Di Fiemme, including a dominant win in the 15 k individual start skate race. After years of training better and harder than perhaps any of his competitors, he was able to ride on a base that allowed him to continue racing amongst the best. The following year, at the Sochi Olympics, his most recent efforts caught up with him, and he returned home empty-handed from a major championship for the first time.
(2013 Val Di Fiemme World Championship 15 k skate individual start.)
After Sochi, Petter admits that he almost certainly would have retired—but then the crash happened. In May of 2014, Petter crashed his Audi A7 while driving under the influence of alcohol just a few hundred meters from his house in Trondheim. A disgraced star described how much it pained him to let down everyone who had supported and believed in him over the years. These shameful circumstances would prove to be the motivation required for arguably the greatest comeback in skiing history. A year later, the 2015 World Championships would be taking place in Falun, Sweden. The notorious rivalry between Norway and Sweden, something that has only grown during Petter Northug’s career, gave Petter no choice but to prepare as his life depended on it. For so many years, winning ski races had meant nothing less than that for him.
In Falun, Petter would go on to take four gold medals, including his first World Championships sprint gold. He is the only male skier to ever win four gold medals in the same World Championships. Petter’s herculean effort in the last kilometer of the 50k to take the gold will go down as one of the most impressive feats in skiing history. It would be the last World Championships medal of Petter Northug’s career, a career that will be remembered forever by everyone in the world of cross-country ski racing.
(2015 Falun, Sweden World Championship finish of the 50 k classic mass start.)
Loved and hated, Petter Northug never ceased to stand for what he was. This refusal to follow the trodden path has shaped the world of ski racing as we know it today. But behind the constant media storm and the controversy, was a kid from a farm in Mosvik who dreamed of becoming the best skier in the world, and sacrificed everything for it.
(Petter Northug Oslo 2011 highlights.)
According to Petter:
Best feeling in a race?
(Petter wins by 35.1 seconds over second place finisher, Martin Johnsrud Sundby)
“Dario Cologna has been a tough rival with many of the same characteristics as me.”
Insights into Petter Northug’s ski career have been taken from Min Historie: Northug as told by Petter Northug to Jonas Forsang. Pilar 2018.