Norway mourns swimmer’s death

Flags that were flying high on the Norwegian Labour Day holiday on Tuesday were lowered to half-mast following reports that Norway’s world champion swimmer Alexander Dale Oen had been found dead in his hotel room at a training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona. Oen, named Norway’s top athlete just three months ago, was 26.

Norwegian swimming champion Alexander Dale Oen, shown being interviewed by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) just a week before he died of apparent heart failure at a training camp in Arizona in the US on Monday night. PHOTO: NRK

The simple fact that Oen had been named Norway’s  ”Athlete of the Year” for 2011, a year in which Norwegian cross country skiers had won top honours on home turf in the Nordic Skiing World Championships, illustrated the esteem Oen held among his fellow athletes. He was a swimmer, not a skier, in a country known for its winter sports expertise. But Oen’s dedication and success at the highest international levels of his sport won him enormous respect.

Oen is believed to have died Monday night local time in Arizona (early Tuesday in Norway) from a massive heart attack, but autopsy results are pending. He’d been participating in a special training camp at a relatively high elevation in Flagstaff, not far from the famed Grand Canyon, since April 11. He hadn’t complained of any ailments during the day before he died.

Fellow members of Norway’s national swimming team attending the camp had reacted Monday evening after realizing that Oen was using an unusually long time in the shower at the end of another day in the pool.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that they yelled for him and pounded on the door of his room. When they received no response, they broke in, and found Oen partially lying on the floor of the bathroom, partially over the bathtub. Lung and heart resuscitation led by the national swimming team’s doctor began while they waited for an ambulance. It continued during the drive to the local hospital, but the champion swimmer was declared dead about an hour later at the Flagstaff Medical Center.

In January, just three months before he died, Oen had traded his swim trunks for a tuxedo to receive Norway's highest athletic honour. Even many of the country's top skiers had voted for swimmer Oen, citing his dedication and success in a sport where few Norwegians excel. PHOTO: NRK

His teammates in the Bærum swimming club, other high-profile Norwegian athletes like golfer Suzann Pettersen and downhill skier Aksel Lund Svindal, his family and admirers all the way up to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg were stunned. Stoltenberg called Oen “a fantastic athlete” on NRK’s nationwide nightly news program Tuesday.

“A small country has lost a huge athlete,” Stoltenberg told NRK.

An NRK crew had traveled to the training camp just a week ago, for yet another report on the young man who was arguably Norway’s greatest hope for a gold medal at the upcoming Summer Olympics in London. Oen had suffered a shoulder injury last winter that had affected his training schedule, but NRK met a top athlete on the offensive who was in good spirits and full of fight.

“I look forward even more to every day of training … and I know I’ll do even better,” Oen told NRK last weekend. “This is just great.” He had said he was relieved his shoulder injury was healing more quickly than expected, and he said he was in a phase of relatively light training that was part of a gradual program towards heavier training, three months before the Olympics would begin.

That still meant he was in the pool as many as four times a day. “He was in incredibly good humour, and there was a lot of joking going on with the rest of the team,” said NRK reporter Line Andersen who had traveled from Oslo to Flagstaff top interview Oen. She thought he also was “very focused” and determined to train “properly,” being among the last to leave the pool every day.

World Champion Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen - 1985-2012

Oen had planned to travel home to Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, on Wednesday. He was born May 21, 1985 at Øygarden in Hordaland, the county where Bergen is located. Even though he swam for the Bærum club west of Oslo, he consistently called Bergen “the most beautiful city in Norway” and was a home-town hero. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg happened to be in Bergen to speak at a Labour Day rally when news broke of Oen’s death.

Oen was the first Norwegian to swim the 100-meter breast stroke in less than a minute. He won Norway’s first Olympic medal in swimming, a silver at the summer games in Beijing in 2008. Then he went on to win the European Championships in 2008 and 2010, and took Norway’s first world championship in swimming ever, when he won the 100-meter breast stroke competition in Shanghai in 2011.

That world championship victory came just days after terrorist attacks in Norway left 77 persons dead. Oen swam in sorrow and dedicated his victory to the victims. Now there’s more sorrow in Norway, for a man who more than anything was known as a very good sport.

“This is the worst day ever for the sport of swimming in Norway,” Per Rune Eknes, president of the national swimming association, told NRK. “Right now, we just have to digest this shock.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1798528473 Anastasia Hobbet

    The day before he died, I read a piece in the NY Times about just this kind of death in young athletes. Heart problems are often very hard to catch in advance, it seems, as they can develop within a few days–heart failure, for instance. Very sad. A lot of people world-wide were keeping an eye Oen.