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1992 Winter Olympics: The Viking’s Conquest

4 minute read
James L. Graff/Les Saisies

At the end of last June, when most other Olympic hopefuls were lashed into rigid training programs, Norwegian cross-country skier Vegard (“the Viking”) Ulvang was hunkered down somewhere in central Greenland, pondering the vexing little problem of survival. He and his best friend, Frenchman Pierre Gay- % Peret, had set out seven days before to ski 355 miles across the world’s largest island. Though the speediest previous crossing by their chosen route had been 25 days, they had brought enough food for just 20. “We wanted to go fast,” explains Ulvang. But their pace during the first week had been crabbed by a snowstorm that had obliterated the horizon. “We were forced into a situation where we had to make a really important decision,” says Ulvang. A decision to turn back? Hardly. The question was how much to eat. They halved their rations, picked up the pace and completed the trip in 15 days and two hours.

Ulvang, 28, the most exhilarating Nordic athlete at Albertville, savors such moments of truth. “It’s the idea of managing the elements that I like,” he says. “In the wilderness or in competition, it takes planning and preparation to succeed.” Norwegian ski officials were as mortified over Ulvang’s Greenland trek as they had been the previous year when he climbed Alaska’s 20,320-ft. Denali, the former Mount McKinley. But not even the most timorous Norwegian trainer is complaining now. Ulvang and his teammate Bjorn Daehlie each won three golds and a silver, leading the national team to 20 medals, a phenomenal haul in light of Norway’s population of only 4.2 million. Ulvang’s four-medal streak sparked such jubilation in his Arctic hometown of Kirkenes that the local stock of champagne has run dry.

He started off with gold in the 30-km event, the only men’s cross-country race that Norway had never won. “That’s the one I came here to get,” says Ulvang, who won a bronze medal in the event in the Calgary Games. “The rest of them were extras.” Ulvang stormed to a dramatic and unexpected victory in the 10-km, despite breaking a pole and skiing with only one for more than 1,600 ft. For three weeks before the Olympics, a hip injury had kept him from practicing the skating technique used in the 15-km free-style pursuit race, but that didn’t stop Ulvang from finishing second to Daehlie. He won a third gold when Norway breezed to victory in the 4 X 10-km relay. Ulvang finished only ninth in the 50-km free-style, but Daehlie won it to complete Norway’s sweep of all five men’s cross-country golds.

With disarming naturalness, Ulvang seems to embody the Olympic Charter’s principle of creating “a way of life based on the joy found in effort.” He’s a winner cut from fresh, unbleached cloth. Perhaps a champion whose training segues so perfectly into his recreation can only emerge in a sport that doesn’t need jumps or rinks, just snow and distance.

Ulvang enjoyed plenty of both at home in Kirkenes. “I can walk a week in any direction and not see a person or cross a road,” says Ulvang. He’s not being figurative. Every September, Ulvang and his two brothers set off from home and walk for a solid 14 hours in one direction or another. At dusk they pitch a base camp, and for the next week they roam the wilderness hunting ptarmigans.

But for all the passion Ulvang devotes to hiking and climbing, fishing and hunting, they’ve been but helpful adjuncts to grueling training of a more specific sort. Ulvang spends 250 days a year with the Norwegian Nordic team. Since September they’ve been running on treadmills high in the Alps to acclimate themselves to the mile-high Olympic course at Les Saisies. “In the long races, the decision always comes in the last 5 km,” says Ulvang. “All my training has been aimed at saving something to go maximum at the end.” The payoff: Ulvang’s lungs absorb oxygen at almost twice the average rate, and his resting pulse is only 35 beats per min.

With the Olympics behind him, Ulvang will head off in April for the relaxing diversion of climbing the highest peaks of every continent but Asia and Antarctica. “When you reach the top of the mountain, you’re at the finish line,” he says. “But that’s a short-lived triumph. What you remember is the climbing that got you to the summit, and the training that paid off in victory.” No eyebrows should arch when Ulvang says that after the Winter Games at Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 he intends to launch an assault on Mount Everest. For Norway’s star performer, it will merely be survival as usual.

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