McGrath's Notes From Norway, Entry One: My First Day

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July, 2002

Summer on snow training camp

Juvass, Norway

I walked into the Hotel lobby in Lom, Norway, more than a little apprehensive, considering it was my first ski camp as head coach of the Norwegian Women's World Cup Ski Team. I had little idea of what to expect and had only briefly met the team members and other coaches a few weeks earlier at a press conference after the announcement of my hiring. The lobby was busy with all types of Norwegian skiers, coaches and ski company officials. It felt a little bit like my first day of kindergarten; I got my key and ran to my room. Being a typical American, and not talented in any language, I had another reason to feel out of place.

Dinner was the next hurdle, with a team meeting I had scheduled to follow. On my way to dinner, I met Kjell Tore Bjarnehaug—one of my assistants and a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. We started talking and within minutes I had made my first alliance. Kjell Tore is a great guy and more importantly, I now had someone I could eat dinner with.

The meeting with the women and staff following dinner was my first true test. The team consists of eight athletes, three coaches, one physiotherapist, one dryland coach, Kjell Tore and two Slovenian servicemen to file and wax skis (15 in all). Fortunately for me, they all speak decent English, which I guess was a no brainer because the Norwegian Ski Federation would never have hired me if I could not communicate with the team. During the meeting I felt their eyes upon me and attempted to stay calm, yet knew I was being judged. I talked about my beliefs, the importance of the team, coaches' expectations of athletes and athletes' expectations of coaches. I also told them I would learn Norwegian, but they would soon learn of my inability to grasp their language (as my Norwegian wife did years ago).

After the meeting, Borut Varl, one of the Slovenian servicemen, who's been waxing skis for some of the best skiers in the world for more than 20 years, introduced himself. "We take beer?" he asked. "Now that's a language I understand!" I responded and off we went to the bar.

While enjoying one of a few pricey Norwegian beers that first night, the bar was full of energy as coaches from the Womens' and Mens' World Cup and Europa Cup Teams cheered while watching a Norwegian football match on TV. I wondered what all the fuss was about and asked them in my typically brash manner how Norway had fared in the most recent World Cup of Soccer? Of course knowing Norway had not qualified—and that the USA had made the quarterfinals—allowed me this arrogance. The room went silent. I realized I had stepped over one of the sacred boundaries of Norwegian culture. Never poke fun at Norwegian skiers or footballers. It is too serious a matter!

As I dozed off to bed that first night, I was eager to get to the glacier the next day and see how these women skied. "That's why I'm here," I thought. This is about skiing and ski racing. "Gotta love it!"

Stay tuned for more from Felix McGrath as he tours the World Cup circuit with his Norwegian women.