Downhill racer makes history

Norway’s downhill skiing star Aksel Lund Svindal was the subject of universal praise over the weekend after he won yet another gold medal in the World Championships and did something that no other male skier had ever done before: Svindal became the first man to win gold in four World Championships in a row.

Aksel Lund Svindal was clearly moved by his latest victory in the World Championships, and drew an overwhelming amount of accolades from fans and competitors alike, not least because he's known as a thoroughly professional racer and extremely nice guy. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Aksel Lund Svindal was clearly moved when Norway’s national anthem could once again be played at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria again on Saturday. He also drew an overwhelming amount of accolades from fans and competitors alike, not least because he’s known as a thoroughly professional racer and an extremely nice guy. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

Sweden’s Anja Pärson had already done the same in women’s alpine skiing, but none of the great male skiers of recent decades, from Jean-Claude Killy to Kjetil Andre Aamodt, had managed to score so many victories over so many years.

Newspaper Aftenposten noted on Sunday that Svindal still has to win some more races to break fellow Norwegian Aamodt’s record of 21 World Cup victories, five World Championships and four Olympic gold medals. Saturday’s hero in the Men’s Downhill at this year’s World Championships now stands at 20-5-1 compared to Aamodt’s outstanding 21-5-4, but as the now-retired Aamodt himself said: “He’s only 30. He can be on top for another four or five years.” Aamodt thinks Svindal can win more medals than he and fellow retired star Lasse Kjus won together. “Aksel is Lasse Kjus and me in one body,” Aamodt told Aftenposten.

Through all the fuss and all the accolades swirling around Svindal after his historic accomplishment, the 30-year-old from Romerike, just northeast of Oslo, stayed grounded as usual. Svindal is known and highly respected for his intense concentration, for being an athletic powerhouse and, not least, for being a gentleman. He has never let all his skiing success go to his head. He’s always smiling, seems genuinely happy to greet fans, politely answers the media’s barrage of questions and never brags or belittles his rivals.

He sent out a typically modest message over social media on Saturday, saying the “best part” of his day was “crossing the finish line and the world championship.” The “second best part,” he wrote, “was getting some time to myself to enjoy the win.”

‘Very cool guy’
Norwegian golfing star Suzann Pettersen called Svindal “the world’s fastest man on skis.” Cycling champion Thor Hushovd called Svindal an “inspiration” and  ”a very cool guy who masters a cool and great sport. He works very hard and is so goal-oriented.” Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg sent his congratulations. Skier Øystein Pettersen wrote that “with all respect for all other athletes in Norway: Aksel is the greatest athlete we have!”

He’s also the guy many others look up to, among them Norwegian biathlon skier Emil Hegle Svendsen, who also won a gold medal for Norway at the biathlon world championships on Saturday, several hundred kilometers away the Czech Republic. “It was an honour to take gold on the same day as Aksel,” Svendsen told reporters. “He’s of course a good athlete, but he’s also a great guy.”

That’s what seems to set Svindal apart from other athletes who get surly or arrogant. “Aksel sets a fantastic example in a completely natural way,” Inge Andersen, secretary general of the national athletics association, told Aftenposten. “That he outclasses everyone else and also becomes historic, is just incredible. On behalf of the entire sports nation, we can only congratulate him.”

‘Just roars ahead’
Superlatives continued to roll, and not just from his excited father on the sidelines or his proud girlfriend, American skier Julia Mancuso. Andersen recalled how Svindal, just before he had to race at the last Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, took time to attend the opening ceremonies, brought along fresh-baked rolls and passed them out on the two-hour-long bus ride from Whistler to Vancouver, and chatted with everyone on board the bus, especially young athletes. Many athletes don’t bother to attend the ceremonies. Svindal sees it as part of his job and seems to enjoy it.

Jarle Aambø, Norway’s top athletics boss, calls Svindal one of Norway’s greatest athletes of all time, “both because of the power of his performances and the values he has. He’s a great team builder with a unique and playful joy of mastering skiing. Where others hesitate, Aksel just roars ahead.”

He’ll be back in action this week, competing among other events in the “super combination” of downhill and slalom on Monday. The World Championships run through February 17.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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