High hopes for new ice princess

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UPDATED: Anne Line Gjersem skips lightly over the ice, despite the heavy load of shouldering a country’s Olympic hopes. The 20-year-old is Norway’s first female figure skating Olympic qualifier since 1964, but showed few signs of feeling the pressure at the European Figure Skating Championships in Hungary this week.

Norway's Anne Line Gjersem is the first figure skater to compete at the Olympics in 50 years. She's shown here performing this week during the ladies short program at the ISU European Figure Skating Championship at the SYMA hall in Budapest, Hungary. PHOTO: NTB/Scanpix/FERENC ISZA, AFP

Norway’s Anne Line Gjersem is set to be the first figure skater to compete at the Olympics in 50 years. She’s shown here performing this week during the ladies short program at the ISU European Figure Skating Championship at the SYMA hall in Budapest, Hungary. PHOTO: NTB/Scanpix/FERENC ISZA, AFP

Gjersem scored 46.63 in the short program event in Budapest on Wednesday, finishing in 18th place. The top-24 placing secured her a spot in Friday’s free skate final, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Gjersem had to advance in the European Championships to get a recommendation from the skating federation, ahead of the Norwegian Olympic organization’s (Olympiatoppen) final determination of the national squad.

On Monday it was official: Gjersem performed well enough on Friday to compete at the Olympics next month, even though she had a minor fall, landing briefly on the ice. She was predictably thrilled with her Olympic ticket, calling her breakthrough “fantastic” and telling NRK that it “meant everything” to her “career as a figure skater” to get to skate in an Olympics.

Gjersem won her Olympic quota position after her seventh-place finish and personal best score at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September. She recounted the feeling of qualifying to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN)’s weekly magazine D2: “When I went out on the ice, the thoughts began to tangle up in my head,” she said. “But when you think too much, you become distracted and lose focus on what’s important. You can’t do anything about the points or the place you get, you can only do something about just what you do on the ice.”

When her score of 142.87 flashed up, and the announcer boomed that Gjersem had “booked her ticket to Sochi,” the news took a moment to sink in. “It took time for me to realize that,” Gjersem remembered. “I talked on the telephone to my sister, who cried. Then I began to cry too. It was the best feeling.”

Twin hopes
Gjersem’s sister Camilla is also an accomplished figure skater, but did not qualify for the Olympics and isn’t competing at the European Championships. Gjersem said she’s feeling her sister’s absence more than the Olympic pressure this week. “I’m happy with my skating, although it could have been better,” she said, after the short program skate on Wednesday. “I think I can end up better than last year, but I miss my twin sister a lot here at the competition.”

“Camilla knows how it feels,” she continued. “We have always trained a lot together and helped each other. Camilla has always been better at different things than me, for example at pirouettes and moving cleanly. I have been better at jumping, but we have learned from each other and developed. Now she’s better at jumping, while I’m better at pirouettes.”

While there’s a natural competitiveness between the twins, they don’t meet very often in competitions outside Norway. “It was inspirational to see her achieve an Olympic quota spot, because that means I can manage it too at a later opportunity,” explained Camilla. “Now I’m fully focused towards the Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018.”

50 year drought
If Gjersem gets her final approval from the Olympic organization, she will be the first Norwegian figure skater to compete at the games in exactly 50 years. As D2 noted, Norway’s last entrants were Anne Karin Dehle and Berit Johansen at the 1964 Innsbruck games.

It’s a far cry from the heyday of Norwegian figure skating, when national legend Sonja Henie ruled the ice and the silver screen. Henie competed at the 1924 Chamonix Olympics at the tender age of 11, went on to win three Olympic gold medals between 1928 and 1936, and became one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood after that, known for her string of skating films. She’s credited with raising the profile of figure skating from a sport to an art form.

“First and foremost it’s really terribly sad that it’s so long since Norway was represented in figure skating at the Olympics, because it’s one of the really big sports at the Winter Olympics,” said Christer Tornell, an expert figure skating commentator and former choreographer for Gjersem. “Also it’s sad for Norway, which in its time had Sonja Henie, who brought so much to figure skating.”

“Anne Line is an incredibly focused and motivated girl and she’s at a technically high level,” Tornell continued. “She has a clearly defined target, and that’s to be as good as possible. It’s very good to see, because it gets the Norwegian figure skating mentality on its feet again.”

Cultivating new champions
Both of the twins have benefited from training under the Sonja Henie project, set up to help Norway regain its former figure skating greatness. The Olympic organization’s project has set a level of professional competence in the work to develop Norway’s next Henie. It was the brainchild of Finn Aamodt, father of downhill skiing and multiple Olympic champion Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who told D2 sacrifice is even more important in figure skating than other sports.

“In all sports you have to work hard if you want to achieve success, and in Norway I don’t think there are so many who are willing to do just that,” said Aamodt. “It’s about getting up at five o’clock in the morning to get enough time in the ice rink. It’s not easy. Anne Line has had good support from her parents, which included moving to be closer to Askerhallen arena.” That’s one of the relatively few ice arenas in Norway, located in Asker, west of Oslo. Most recently, she’s been living and training in Malmö, Sweden as well.

Gjersem recounted how after a year of training, her coach told her the family had to relocate from the town of Raufoss in Oppland County  if she wanted to focus on figure skating. Gjersem trained three hours a day, five days a week at Lillehammer, including an hour of commuting. “I went straight home from school, sat in the car with mum and dad, ate and changed in the car and then trained for a few hours,” she said. “On the way home I did homework in the car. Supper and straight to bed, repeat the next day.”

In her prime
Gjersem hoped her years of disciplined training will put her in good stead for the remainder of the European Championships, and looking ahead to the Olympics. Most female figure skaters are around the age of 20 when they’re at their best. The last few months have been a balancing act between hard training up to 30 hours a week, and protecting her thigh muscle which has been acting up since the Nebelhorn Cup.

Gjersem said she’s trying not to dwell on her leg going into competition. “I don’t want to think about it,” she told D2. “Once you’re away from figure skating, for example when you’re injured, that you must get back on the ice is the only thing you think about. I think it’s going to be difficult when I have to give up. But that’s many years away. I’ll take it when it comes.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate