A place where the stars shine bright | VailDaily.com

A place where the stars shine bright

Shane Macomber/smacomber@vaildaily.com Norwegian skier Kjetil-Andre Aamodt turns through a gate Wednesday during World Cup Birds of Prey downhill training in Beaver Creek. Aamodt continues a proud tradition of Norwegian alpine skiing with 21 World Cup wins and seven Olympic medals.
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BEAVER CREEK – In Norway, a tiny country with roughly the same amount of people as the state of Colorado, people have been skiing since 2000 B.C.It’s true.The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs boasts that, “The modern form of skiing has its origins in the county of Telemark, beginning in the 1870s and 1880s. But, an ancient rock carving, at Rodoy in Nordland county, shows that Norwegians used skis as far back as 4000 years ago.”Norwegian mythology also underscores the country’s skiing legend. Greeks revere Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo. Norwegians grow up reading about Ull, the god of skiing, and Skade, the goddess of skiing and hunting.In the birthplace of skiing, to represent your country in competitive ski racing is to carry on an epic tradition.The word slalom itself – which is used in three of the five World Cup alpine disciplines – is of Norwegian origin. The first syllable, “sla,” means slope or hill and “lam” is the track down the slope.Knowing that, the obvious question is, “What does it mean to race for the Norwegian Alpine team? What does is feel like for men literally to carry on the tradition of gods?”

You can ask in English if you want. Along with being fluent in skiing, all the members of the Norwegian Alpine Team speak the language flawlessly.”In Norway, skiing is the national sport.” said Bjarne Solbakken, who last year won the super-G on the Birds of Prey course. “Mainly, cross country skiing is No. 1 and then the alpine skiers are after that. It’s tradition. Because we’re a little country, there is a lot of pride when we make top athletes.”Each of the three Norwegians who competed in Wednesday’s downhill training – Solbakken, Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Aksel Lund Svindal – agreed that cross country skiing has a bigger following than alpine in their native homeland.”If the results are the same, then it’s important,” Aamodt said. “If the results are not good, then people don’t watch it. I think it’s more tradition for watching cross country skiing. Not in the cities, but for the people living in the countryside. They like to train and be outdoors. But, the Kitzbuehel downhill (last year), there was more viewers than the cross country national championships. So, it depends. We’ve had some really good years in alpine skiing. It depends how we’re doing.”There is good reason for the results argument. Norway kicks butt in cross country skiing every World Cup season. In the 2002 Park City Olympics, the men’s cross country team alone took away seven medals, three of which were gold, in the six different cross-country disciplines.Slalom affectionNorway still fervently loves its alpine stars, however, and it is because they continue to make their country proud.Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, the latter of whom did not start in Wednesday’s downhill training because of a respiratory ailment, are both in the twilight of their careers. But, each has been at the pinnacle of the sport and continue to remain a source of national pride.

The duo has a combined 37 World Cup wins between them. Aamodt also has seven Olympic medals, while Kjus has five.Aamodt won the overall title in 1994 and Kjus won in 1996 and then again in 1999 by snatching away the title from Hermann Maier. In that year, Kjus forever emblazoned his visage on the minds of the ski-racing community here in the valley by reaching the podium five times at the 1999 World Alpine Skiing Championships.Solbakken also made his mark here last year when he flew to the super-G win, a triumph that made his homecoming at the airport in Oslo at the end of the World Cup season a raucous one.”Last year, it was great,” he said. “I got great support when I landed. It was a lot of fun.” Svindal, the youngest member of the Norwegian team here this week, said that as an aspiring ski racer growing up, cross country was always the most popular. He said he still has the posters of Aamodt and Kjus on his wall at home that he hung up as a kid, but said that his zeal for the sport didn’t necessarily reflect that of his peers. He sees that trend changing now, though.”Cross country is pretty big in Norway and you have biathlon as well,” he said. “But, the alpine skiing is pretty big for sure. It’s actually getting bigger and bigger now. The reputation for cross country is going down, compared to when I was a kid. Now (alpine), it’s really picking up there. Just in the area where I live, which is in a part of Oslo, there are probably more kids skiing now than when I grew up.”Skiing bigAamodt said Wednesday that this year’s alpine team may not be as strong as in year’s past. He made light of Kjus’ ailment in the racer’s corral at the bottom of the Birds of Prey course in what appeared to be a little bit of spin control.

“He’s just too old.” said Aamodt jokingly, and who like Kjus was born in 1971. “It’s just too cold today. It’s really cold air and he can’t breathe very well.”There was no word from any of Kjus’ teammates as to whether he will be able to compete in today’s super-G or Friday’s downhill.Even if he is not able to start, there is no doubting Kjus’ legend in these parts. His respected name, just like Norwegian’s great skiing tradition, will continue to live on in grandeur.To be on the Norwegian Alpine Ski Team, well, it’s a thing of distinction in the the tiny Scandinavian country which stretches from the North Sea to the Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle.It’s a thing of honor. And, it’s a means to keep the skiing world’s eye on the country where the sport was invented. “Norway is where I’m born, and where my family is from,” Svindal said, smiling. “A lot of other sports like European football, or soccer or motor sports, you represent different things like Ferrari. But we represent our nation, and I think that’s pretty cool. The flag on our chest is sort of like our way of showing our national pride.” The gods must be proud.Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com.