Petter Northug is better known for being tough and sassy when he won races and mocked his rivals, but he dissolved into tears on Wednesday when he finally announced his long-predicted resignation from professional skiing. After 12 years at the highest levels of his sport, Northug is finished after a recent batch of disappointing results.
“I have chosen to retire as a ski racer,” Northug said at a midday press conference in Trondheim. “I told myself that I can’t use more energy and strength to keep fighting to continue. I kept living in the belief that I’d manage a turn-around (from the poor results) but I’m a bit fed up. This was the best solution for me.”
The tears came when he started talking about his family and not least his two brothers, calling them “very important, especially after 2011,” when Northug had been sick, frustrated and called a “bad sport,” only to finish the season with a pile of medals but still more controversy over his poker playing. While relating how his brothers “have helped me with motivation,” he appeared overcome with emotion and couldn’t manage to hold back tears as reporters waited in silence.
“Thanks to them I found the motivation to keep skiing,” Northug finally said. After another long pause while still choked up, he added that “I can only say it’s been like a fairy tale.”
Northug had revealed in an autobiography released earlier this autumn just how much his professional skiing career has cost him. It meant sacrificing a personal life and dropping almost all events within his extended family: “I haven’t seen them, I haven’t shown up for birthday parties for cousins, my grandmother, aunts, uncles,” even his own brothers at times, according to the book Min historie (My story). “I have dropped everything.” All that mattered was being able to win races, regardless of what that cost. All his time and energy went into training. He tried to make it look like skiing didn’t matter that much, even that he didn’t take it seriously, just because “I couldn’t live with anyone knowing how much it meant to me if I didn’t win.”
Born in Mosvik in central Norway in 1986, he started skiing early and was pushed by what he called a “brutal” father, John Northug. He credited his father at Wednesday’s press conference for much of his success, but said he probably wouldn’t be “as brutal” if he ever becomes a father himself. Northug has rarely been attached to any romantic entanglements, though, since skiing always came first.
His career haul includes 13 World Championships and two Olympic gold medals. He has won all World Championship distances and 38 World Cup races. He won the overall World Cup twice and the long-distance Tour de Ski in 2015.
Along the way, though, he got into lots trouble for bad behaviour and sheer cockiness. He also got into arguments with national ski association officials, not least over paid sponsorships and his professional poker playing. He left the national ski team in 2013 and went private, sparking accusations he simply wasn’t a team player.
His performance sank during the 2013-2014 season, though, and he famously crashed his sponsored Audi into a guardrail while driving drunk in April 2014. The scandal resulted in a fine and jail term and Northug finally showing some humility, admitting he was “ashamed.”
He kept on skiing, backed by sponsors who didn’t dump him, and mounted a brilliant, and also tearful, comeback at the World Championships in 2015, He failed later that year, however, to make a comeback on the national ski team again after yet another quarrel with the ski federation.
He never seemed to fully recover from years of highs and lows. He did return to the national team but wasn’t included among those selected to compete in major events, leading to more sarcasm and mocking from Northug at the beginning of last season. Speculation was already flying two years ago that Northug’s days at the top of his sport were numbered if not already over, as he suddenly struggled to ski, and later failed to qualify for last winter’s Olympics. His latest book, however, sold well, at least and he appeared to realize at the beginning of this season that he simply wasn’t in good shape any longer. He accepted, at any rate, officials’ decisions when he was cut from World Cup openers once again.
Last month came word that he would start working as a TV commentator. He said on Thursday that he has no firm plans, other than heading to Switzerland to help coach his youngest brother Even, also a skier.
Northug’s decision to end his skiing career came as no big surprise. He’d said himself that he’d probably decide by Christmas whether he’d keep skiing, while the media began predicting his exit quite a while ago.
Vegard Ulvang, another former cross country skiing champion who went on to be a successful businessman, credited Northug for taking the sport “out of the woods” and appealing to new groups of fans. “He’s made a brave choice,” Ulvang told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Others called Northug’s exit “the end of an era,” with former biathlon star Emil Hegle Svendsen calling Northug a “showman” as well as a top skier.
“I had a dream when I was little about being a good skier,” Northug said. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. It’s tough to give it up, but at the same time it feels good.”