Inside the skiing pipeline: The importance of Idraet
A series on the health and development of the U.S. Ski Team pipeline
The weight of Dave Christian’s gold medal shocked my spindly 11-year-old arms as I felt its significance permeate both my muscles and my soul on a crisp, fall day spent at the former Olympian’s Moorhead, Minnesota home. Being the dad and uncle of two of my junior high cross-country teammates warranted the huge plate being brought out from its locked hiding place and passed around. Thirteen of the 20 members of the 1980 gold medal-winning U.S. hockey team hailed from Minnesota, population 4.1 million at the time, including Christian. His birthplace, tiny Warroad (population 1,800) has produced seven Olympic, five NHL, and over 80 NCAA DI hockey players.
The same people who ask, “How can a nation as tiny as Norway produce so many winter Olympic champions and we can’t?” ought to consider why New York, Massachusetts, Michigan — heck, I’ll throw a punch to the neighbors to the east — Wisconsin — weren’t able to produce at least a few of our Lake Placid heroes.
The very tapestry of Minnesota is a blueline, where red-cheeked boys and girls grew up in the penalty box with their own mothers as refs. That is to say: Everyone is in agreement over the importance of the sport. As a result, there is easy, widespread access to playing it on a pond or team and the cultural expectation motivates generation after generation to walk in the footsteps of legends who’ve skated before them.
So it is with skiing in countries like Norway, Austria and Switzerland.
“When a guy there who covered ski racing for the paper dies, it was big news. Here, nobody would even know who that is,” laughs Peter Lange, publisher of Ski Racing Media, which recently published a news release on his site indicating that the Swiss team had named 99 people to their 2022-23 roster.
“Their systems are so big,” he said.
E. John B. Allen, author of what renowned ski journalist John Fry states is the most “meticulous, comprehensive historical research about skiing” text, “From Skisport to Skiing: One Hundred Years of an American Sport,” argues a distinction between utilitarian skiing — what mid-nineteenth century gold miners in the West used skis for, namely as a pragmatic transportation mechanism — and “skisport,” an application strongly influenced by the Norwegian concept of “Idraet.”
Allen defines skisport as “the all-encompassing term for skiing as a recreation, sport and business. Idraet, which is the Norwegian word for ‘sport’ implied a transcendent value to athletic endeavors.
“It was not only a matter of physical capability in one given exercise, but it also included the ideal that a healthy body would produce a healthy soul which would benefit the entire nation,” as University of Oslo graduate student Kristoffer Moen Helgerud stated in his 2013 thesis exploring “the role of skiing in Norwegian American ethnic identity in the 1930s,” titled, “Are Norwegian Americans ‘born with skis?’”
Moen cites the famous Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, leader of the first team to cross Greenland (doing so on cross-country skis) in 1888. Nansen “preached that ski running was the most national of all Norwegian sports” and labeled it the “sport of sports.” Incidentally, another nation whose cultural values of toughness, discipline, and the spirit of exploratory conquest derive from skiing — Russia — churns out cross-country and biathlon champions every decade.
That Americans have any skiers at all may serve as a testament to Nansen’s discipleship of Norwegian American immigrants who hearkened his call for citizens to serve their new country by becoming “active participants in an Idraet they already championed.”
“While I’ve long been aware that cross-country skiing is baked into the fabric of Norwegian culture, I was astounded by the article’s description of the sophistication, nuance and systematization behind Norway’s cultivation of athletes at all levels and across all sports,” stated Alaska cross-country ski hall of fame member and current Leadville resident Judy Rabinowitz, who competed in four cross-country ski events at the 1984 Olympics, in reference to the Aspen Institute’s recent article “How Norway Won All that Olympic Gold (Again).”
“I suspect that Norway’s size, cohesiveness and relative affluence have a lot to do with its ability to institute such an evolved approach to sport that promotes synergies between numerous local ski clubs, sport-focused high schools, universities, colleges and its Olympiatoppen sports center,” Rabinowitz said.
How Norway does it
“Norway is quite different in that winter Olympic sport is really celebrated at probably a significantly different level than it is in the United States,” Aldo Radamus said.
In his “Leever Study,” Dan Leever created a special section from notes garnered from his Norwegian interviews. In an interview with a member of the senior athletic staff, the “fighting Viking culture” was noted as “the key competitive advantage the Norwegians have.” That member, along with a second interviewee, also pointed out that Norwegians have an extremely high volume of training and days on snow, skiing up to seven days a week, even when as youngsters. World Cup members routinely eclipse 180 days on snow.
One interviewee noted that Kilde often trained 15 runs the day before an Europa Cup race. “He just didn’t care about things like EC success,” the interviewee stated. “He was always focused on World Cup champions.”
Despite high training volumes, Leever learned that burnout was simply a myth in the Norwegian system. “There is no such thing as burn out. There is just laziness,” he wrote in the takeaway notes section of his study. Another bullet point read, “No problem (with) people quitting. Doing things half way and expecting 100% result(s) is crazy.”
In 2019, I visited Oslo to train and race with Lyn Ski Club, the local group that produced recent Olympic champion Simen Kruger and World Champion Hans Christer-Holund. I was immersed in an environment where everyone … and I mean everyone … skied.
On a random Wednesday nights, I skated around dozens of groups of 10-12 elementary-aged skiers playing games with pedagogically appropriate technique drills invisibly woven into each activity. I ventured into the historic Nordmarka forest, a train stop away for businessmen and women to go directly from suits and ties in downtown Oslo to spandex and Salomon boots in a remote, immaculately groomed trail. There, I spotted other members of Lyn Ski. The middle schoolers, calmed by their chosen activity’s ubiquitousness, clearly not quietly wondering if this was the “cool thing to do.”
The high school-aged teams had athletes grouped by their developmental level, with even a few working in with the senior-pro team, the highest performing bunch. Of course, one could compete for Lyn for as long as they desired. Perhaps the most beautiful element to observe within Norway’s club-system was the continuum of ages, interests, goals and ability-levels merged onto one team bus as nearly 100 Lyn members rode to Rena for the start of one of the most famous ski marathons in the world — the Birkebeinerrennet.
The race itself is a symbol of sports intersection with Norway’s people, inspired by the over-the-mountain ski expedition of Birkebeiner loyalists Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka to save the infant heir to the Norwegian throne, Håkon Håkonsson, in the winter of 1206.
The scenes described are emblematic of perhaps the most foundational element in any discussion of development: Because skiing is the crucial, unifying piece of fabric in the Norwegian cultural quilt, one embedded into the nation’s identity, the country 1) prioritizes it, 2) makes it accessible and meaningful at all developmental stages and 3) fosters an inspirational mystique around being the next Nansen, Kruger, or Kilde.
Inspiring the next generation
On April 13, 2018, Jessie Diggins made a stop at Valley Crossing Elementary School in Woodbury, Minn. to show off the first gold medal ever earned by a U.S. cross-country skier. As she shared her heavy hunk of metal with wide-eyed children, she linked herself with them.
“When I was your age, I got my own pair of skis and I would go out with my family and my friends,” she told the students, as reported by the Republican Eagle.
“If you want to go to the Olympics someday or learn a new instrument or get an A on your test or run really fast, whatever you want to do, you have to love what you do and have fun with it. You have to practice really hard and if you’re having fun, that’s how you’re going to get there.”
That Saturday, she rolled through Stillwater as a hundred fans lined the streets of her hometown. Later on her four-day trip home, the busy Olympic champion lobbied for a World Cup race to come to Minneapolis. All three events illustrate chains undergirding the U.S. Ski Team’s constant striving for improvement from the bottom to the top.
First, the natural pattern of young athletes’ hero-driven inspiration — bolstered by sporting icons who step down from lofty pedestals and allow the hem of their garments to be touched — driving each generation to fill their idols’ shoes. In the same way Christian’s gold medal sinking into my hands proved indelible, somewhere in the Valley Crossing Elementary School audience a boy or girl who was touched forever.
Then, there’s the most worthy local athlete — one who deserves thousands at a parade in her honor — receiving less than a tenth of the attention she’s earned. It’s a dreary indicator of our public square’s view of skiing.
Finally, what ties it all together is bringing world-class competitions to America’s backyard. (Would the NFL work if all of the games were in London?)
For what it’s worth, the 2020 World Cup at Theodore Wirth was days from taking place — the initial March COVID shutdown ruined everything. Still, Diggins represents something: Progress is possible.
The almost 30-year-old didn’t step onto the World Cup as a world-beater. She had a nondescript 2014 Olympics and numerous fourth and fifth place finishes at World Championships before the big breakthrough. In 2021, she accomplished the crown jewel feat in the sport: Winning the overall crystal globe. Her rise wasn’t flashy or fancy, either. Diggins ran track and skied for Stillwater High School, even losing a state high school league championship her junior year, after winning the previous two years.
Now demanding five-figure appearance fees and holding a plethora of endorsements, it’s hard to fathom the humble and steady advancement of one of America’s brightest snow stars. Diggins’ progression may provide the most fundamental truth about development: there is no fancy replacement for patience and proper priorities.
“I do not know the U.S. system too well to judge it, but I generally think it is important to focus on the core aspects leading to recruitment and development of athletes — and thereafter organize so these aspects are the core of everything,” said Dr. Oyvind Sandbakk, the editor-in-chief for the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in an email.
“This can be done in different ways, due to societal or practical possibilities and limitations but never forget the core factors leading to development as kids, youths, adults and athletes — in that order.”