Bjørgen ‘getting over’ heart ailment

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Norway’s national cross-country skiing coach has admitted that Marit Bjørgen, the champion skier who was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat just before Christmas, was initially “crushed” by the news that she couldn’t compete in the Tour de Ski that begins this weekend. Winning it was her main goal this season, but now she’s “getting over” the disappointment and is already out skiing again, carefully.

Marit Bjørgen won some events in last season’s Tour de Ski but ended up in second place overall. Her main goal this year was to win the entire Tour, but now she’s unable to compete because of heart trouble. PHOTO: NRK / Views and News

Bjørgen met reporters on Wednesday for the first time since news of her hospitalization in Trondheim broke the day before Christmas Eve. The sudden onset of heart trouble ruined her holidays, but she gamely claimed that she wasn’t going to let an irregular heartbeat and high pulse ruin her entire skiing season.

“I’m beginning to get over it,” Bjørgen told reporters after a training round at Heimdal, outside Trondheim. “But when I got the message that I couldn’t do Tour de Ski, I was very disappointed. It was like the air went out of the balloon.”

The Tour de Ski was her main goal this season. It’s the only event she hasn’t won, and she was the clear favourite this year.

She’s consoled herself by remembering that she actually gave up the series of gruelling races around Europe voluntarily a few years ago, to concentrate on winning World Championship events at Holmenkollen in Oslo in 2011. “Then I dropped Tour de Ski,” she said.

This time her absence is absolutely involuntary but necessary, according to her doctors who are closely monitoring her health. More test results were due later this week and in the meantime, Bjørgen has heart monitors attached to herself at all times. Neither her doctors nor her coaches would let her risk taking part in Tour de Ski because it’s so strenuous.

‘Scary’
More details of her medical drama last weekend have emerged, with newspaper Aftenposten reporting that she had just returned to Oslo from high-elevation training in Val Senales last Friday when she noticed an “abnormal” heartbeat. She didn’t say anything, and decided to go ahead with a training round at Holmenkollen on Saturday. She noticed the same fast heart- and, later, pulse rate, and that she lost strength when she pushed herself.

Then she called her doctor and team coach Egil Kristiansen. She traveled home to Trøndelag for the Christmas holidays, but within a few hours she was admitted to St Olavs Hospital and put under observation before being released on Sunday.

Fellow Norwegian skiers were shaken and even scared by Bjørgen’s sudden heart trouble, not least since the shocking death of top Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen last spring. “This really puts things in perspective,” said Norway’s top skier on the men’s team, Petter Northug. He’s all set to run in the Tour de Ski, but told newspaper VG through his manager Lars Gilleberg that “nothing is more important than health. I hope this doesn’t prove to be anything really serious, and that’s she’s quickly back in the tracks again.” He called Bjørgen “a sensible woman who makes the right choices, also now.”

Martin Johnsen Sundby, another Norwegian skier who experienced heart trouble last season, said it was “extremely uncomfortable and scary,” but he’s back competing now and won a World Cup opener this season. He has full sympathy and empathy, for Bjørgen’s situation: “You don’t know what’s happening to you and it was a traumatic experience. I’m very sorry for Marit now.” He stressed, though, that she’ll have other chances to collect more major victories.

Bjørgen has also tackled illness and physical setbacks before, like when she performed poorly in the Olympics at Torino. “This won’t affect me,” she claimed. “I still feel like I’m in good shape.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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