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Cross-country skiing. The very words elicit a deeply rooted contempt among a lot of American downhillers. For being so closely related, nordic and alpine skiing are uneasy kin. Here in the States, the alpiners are the cool kids, no question. In northern Europe, however, a skinny-skier can be a rock star—a stud, even. Petter Northug, a Norwegian, has won two Olympic gold medals and nine World Championships and is considered one of the best active ski racers in any discipline. More significant, Northug is 26 and wickedly handsome, with lamplike blue eyes, tousled blond hair, and a GQ-cover physique. He is famously hypercompetitive. On the racecourse, he taunts his opponents, shouting, “You’re nothing but a rat!” as he overpowers them with his trademark finish-line kick. Off-piste, he has an eye for the ladies. Last year, when rumor spread that he was dating Iranian-born porn star Aylar Lie, the Norwegian paparazzi hid in the bushes outside his apartment, waiting for a photo op. He’s a full-fledged celebrity in Europe on par with Lindsay Vonn in the States. When he’s not on snow, Northug is, of course, exploiting his gifts as a poker player. In the 2010 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, he placed 653rd out of more than 7,000 contestants, and his girlfriend at the time, Rachel Nordtomme, was voted Hottest Girl on the Rail by a poker website. This July he returned to Vegas for the 2012 Series.
When I met him there, amid legions of shuffling tourists in the casino of the Rio Hotel, he carried roller skis in a zippered bag and was bound for a workout in Red Rocks Canyon, just west of town. We climbed into a taxi. Two Norwegian journalists traveled with him—one is assembling an eight-part reality TV series on Northug’s exploits. In genial tones, Northug mused on the perils of his celebrity. “Once when I went to a club I put on a red wig and mascara and a skirt, but when I got all sweaty dancing, people said, ‘Hey, that’s a man,’ and they recognized me. It was not good.” On our way to the canyon, we stopped at a small stucco home occupied by five of his friends who were in town to play poker. Northug chose, at this juncture, to discuss one of the central mysteries of cross-country ski racing. Last November, as he crossed a finish line first, he made a curious gesture, planting his thumb on his nose. He explained that he was “honoring that fantastic animal, the rhinoceros.” The Norwegian media surmised that he was mocking his rivals, the Swedes, but now Northug unveiled the truth: His nose-thumbing was a shout-out to a Las Vegas strip club, The Spearmint Rhino. “I lost a poker bet in Vegas,” he said, “so I had to do that. It was embarrassing, but if you don’t keep your promises, they’ll send the Mafia after you.” Northug’s manager, Lars Gilleberg, showed up in a red Audi S5 convertible. Northug drove the car to the canyon, hugging the curves at 55, then 60, then 65—in a 35-mile-per-hour zone. When he hopped out to roller-ski, shirtless, up a long slope toward Red Rock, he kept flowing along with sleek grace. One of the Norwegian writers tried to hang with Northug through the warmup. Northug dropped him, then laughed as he burst into song. “Now it is time for all the old people to go home.” He kept going—up toward the red cliffs. In a few years, Northug’s reign will be over. He too will grow old. But for the moment he is at the top of his game. “I am not just doing this for myself,” he told me as he stood by the road after his long workout was done. “In Norway, everybody cares about cross-country skiing. I am doing this for my family, for Norway, for all the sportsmen.” He took one last slug of Gatorade. Then he shook my hand, climbed into the Audi, and zipped away. Petter Northug had places to go. ●