Thoughts of Norway | Out and About Sept. 2011

Although I sometimes feel numb to the seemingly constant flow of tragic news—tornadoes ravaging the American South, a tsunami devastating scores of communities in Japan, and famine threatening millions in Africa—the deranged Norwegian gunman whose daylong rampage in July killed nearly 100 of his countrymen hit me especially hard. I have many fond memories of several visits to the birthplace of Nordic skiing, and the actions of 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik seem inconceivable in the nation that gave the world the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and awards the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although grandparents on my mother’s side came to this country from Sweden, and there has always been a spirited rivalry between the Swedes and their neighbors to the west, I have long had a fascination with Norway. As a high school, then collegiate, cross-country skier, I was familiar with the top Russians, Finns, Swedes, and Germans, but it was the Norwegians, like Odd Martinsen, anchor of their formidable relay team in the late 1960s, whom I tried to emulate.

In the summer of 1966, like many American college students, I stuffed some clothes and a couple of maps into a backpack, bought a low-budget plane ticket, and set out to hitchhike around Europe. It didn’t take me long to get to Norway. On the outskirts of Oslo, a family leaving on holiday gave me a lift. The mom cheerfully squeezed in the back seat with her kids, allowing me the opportunity to chat with her husband as he drove north. They gave me good advice about where to stay, historic points of interest, and natural wonders.

A group of local Norwegians at the youth hostel in Lillehammer invited several of us foreign travelers to join them on a hike to a nearby waterfall and swimming hole. After an hour or so of brisk walking into the nearby hills, we reached a mountain stream, tumbling over a rock outcrop to a pool below, worthy of a cover photo on a national tourist brochure. Laughing and shouting encouragement, our Norwegian guides stripped off their clothes and plunged into the icy water. Some of the European hostel guests quickly followed the Norwegians’ example. Ever since, I’ve regretted that bashfulness, or my New England Puritan upbringing, that caused me to hesitate, then hike back to the hostel without swimming. Those Norwegian kids seemed to display a wholesome innocence that is rare in our country.

Through several years of international competition on the U.S. Biathlon Team, I became friends with a few world-class Norwegian skiers. Kjell Hovda, like many of his teammates, was in the military. Following the ’76 Olympics in Innsbruck, he invited me to stay for a few days in his home in Honnefoss, a couple of train stops north of Oslo. Hovda was a far better biathlete than I, so I was eager to pick up some training pointers. One morning he suggested a “tour” from his home town, down through the famous Nordmarka Park to Oslo. As we began our workout, I was baffled by his modest pace. Almost 100 kilometers later, I was barely hanging on while Kjell effortlessly maintained the same pace he had established hours earlier.

The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer showcased the Norwegians at their best. In near perfect winter conditions, the home team excelled, winning medals in nearly every discipline, while hundreds of thousands of rosy-cheeked, flag-waving, winter sports fanatics lined the courses, cheering for all the competitors, regardless of nationality. Their speed-skating icon, Johann Olav Koss, following his first gold medal performance, donated $30,000 to Olympic Aid, a charity he helped establish to benefit youth in the war-torn nations of Africa and Eastern Europe. Thanks to Koss’ efforts, more than $1 million had been raised for Olympic Aid before the Lillehammer Olympic torch was extinguished.

A couple of summers ago, my wife, Kay, and I had the good fortune to join A Prairie Home Companion Norwegian fjord cruise. Daily excursions to the towns and scenic wonders of Norway’s convoluted west coast, supplemented by evening entertainment on the ship by Garrison Keillor and the performers from his weekly NPR radio show, created a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On an afternoon hike in the warm sunshine above Kristiansand, Kay and I rested on a warm rock. Soon, we were both asleep, sensing perhaps, the security of the Norwegian culture, even in a popular public park.

Remembering that day, it is especially sobering to recognize that senseless violence can strike anywhere, even in a place as idyllic as Norway.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website,