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Mar 16, 2014

Growing the Sport Norway-Style

Heidi Hill

My daughter considered being Kikkan Randall for Halloween. The dilemma was that people wouldn’t know who she was. So she went as Red Sox baseball player Dustin Pedroia instead. The team had won the World Series the night before so her costume was well received.

In Norway, the country’s top skiers are household names. Sports celebrities. Being the country of origin for cross country skiing helps drive the sport’s popularity. But U.S. Cross Country Ski Team members are attracting attention with best-ever performances. What does it take to move the sport into mainstream visibility and grow its numbers, starting with our youngest skiers?

I spoke to Inge Scheve, a Norwegian-born skier, who moved to the United States to attend the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Scheve now divides her time between Seattle and Norway, the latter for the winter months, naturally. She is the editor of, Norway’s online Nordic skiing news organization, and a perfect candidate for offering a perspective on how the U.S. might model Norway in growing the sport.

Play on Skis

Scheve grew up in Norway’s Rendalen Valley and started skiing as soon as she could walk; she says this is what all kids do in Norway. It’s a natural progression. Kids learn to walk and you give them a pair of skis.

Like her fellow classmates, Scheve took her skis to preschool. She attended a nature-based school, where she was outside all the time and on skis a lot. While she may have gotten more outdoor time than kids at other schools, she explains that, “Almost all preschool and kindergartens have ski classes,” adding that, “In the U.S., kids go on nature hikes; in Norway, they go cross country skiing.”

Once in elementary school, Scheve said she’d get home from school, hang up her backpack, grab her skis, and head outdoors. They went in the backyard, in the woods. They jumped off cliffs. “It was unorganized play on skis,” says Scheve.

Access to Gear

In elementary school, everyone skied and everyone had skis, explains Scheve. “If you invited friends to ski to the cabin, you knew they’d have skis.”

“I didn’t have a new pair of skis for cross country or alpine until I was 14,” says Scheve. She got hand-me-downs from relatives and friends. Sometimes they bought used equipment from friends. All of the clubs have ski swaps and people donate equipment to schools so they are equipped as well.

Scheve says that even new equipment is more affordable in Norway than in the U.S., noting that the sticker tag is lower than in the States and Norwegians have higher salaries than the United States.

She suggests that we could do a better job of providing easier access to gear. People need to get unused equipment out of their basements and donate it to clubs and schools. There needs to be more used equipment in circulation.

The U.S. is so gear-focused, says Scheve. There is pressure for kids to have two pairs of race skis for skate and classic. In Norway, she says, a lot of kids just use one pair of hand-me-downs for both techniques.

Low-Key Skiing

Scheve joined a ski club when she was five or six years old. She was not a racer, but she did participate in the club races a few times a season. “They were low-key. No one cared about your gear,” says Scheve.  She remembers liking the community aspect of dry land training, where all the snow sports practiced together, making for a big group. Scheve grew up skiing both cross country and alpine, which she says is typical among kids in Norway.

She skied recreationally through her youth, only taking up racing as a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Since she had little racing experience, Scheve was not often on the university’s travel team. She got the racing bug, though, and pursued it post-college skiing for XC Oregon while living in Bend.

Now, Scheve is racing more than ever. She attributes this to not getting burned out as a kid. She can choose when and where she wants to race. One of her regular choices is the World Masters, where she regularly earns medals.

Scheve recommends holding kids back a little, even if they like to race, so they are not traveling all over to compete. Keep it local, she recommends. She sees the sport here as so race-focused that kids leave the sport if they are not interested in racing.

“In the U.S., there is so much pressure to race that it can be off-putting for kids and for parents,” Scheve says. “If you’re a recreational skier, you’re on your own.” Clubs say they’re not race-focused, but usually they are. There needs to be an open-door policy so kids can just tour without pressure to race.

“In Norway, the sport is connected to a lifetime lifestyle,” Scheve says. “People ski, even if they are not inclined to race. “

Family Lifestyle

At youth ski practices across the United States, parents typically drop their children off and have an hour or so of limbo time. A handful of parents may ski, but the majority are likely to bide their time otherwise.

In Norway, ski clubs invite parents to ski during their kids practice, says Scheve. They host a coached session for parents. The general format is to split the parent group in two so that one group works on intervals and intensity while the other goes on an easy, distance ski. Workouts can attract 40-50 parents, in which case a coaching assistant and junior racers will also help out. Parents choose their group, do their workout, and come together at the end in time to pick up their kids, explains Scheve.

Getting parents on skis — either training or skiing recreationally — adds to the Nordic community. Skiing becomes a family lifestyle rather than the sport-of-choice for a son or daughter.

While Scheve has many recommendations on how we can grow our Nordic community, she also sees that the United States is on a roll. Clubs are growing and U.S. Team members are performing stronger than ever. Scheve sees our biggest challenge as making the sport a family lifestyle, not just one where a kid in the family races.

Celebrity Status

Getting names like Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell known in our main culture could inspire kids and parents alike. Running saw booms after Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson won Olympic medals. Olympian Bill Rogers’ continued success at the Boston and New York City marathons served as inspiration, too. Today, parents of all abilities run recreationally and competitively, and kids participate in fun runs.

Cross country skiing has the potential for a boom in the United States. Awareness is growing. Roller skiing recently made the Today Show with Nordic combined Olympic medalist Billy Demong giving host Matt Lauer a tutorial. Granted roller skiing is more intimidating than on-snow skiing, but it’s a start in exposure.

Elite athletes showing top performances bring attention to the sport. Simultaneously, the sport has to be deemed accessible to the average person, not just the endurance junkies. Events like Fast and Female are helping to build this awareness – that you can have fun with the sport at competitive and recreational levels. We’re taking steps in the right direction. Let’s continue the roll.

Heidi Hill is the author of Fit Family and a freelance writer specializing in stories connected to sports, fitness, and family. She lives with her husband, Tom Thurston, and two daughters in Waterbury, Vermont.