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Norwegian ’60 skate team visits resort

MIKE WOLTERBEEK, Sun News Service

The 1960 Norwegian Olympic Speed Skating Team returned to Squaw Valley last week to celebrate their victories and experiences 40 years ago at the VIII Winter Games.

“My breath was taken away, the feelings were a lot, everything was here,” Norwegian Hroar Elvenes said, touching his throat as he described his impressions when entering Squaw Valley for the first time since his small team took home two Gold Medals and one Silver Medal.

The team is legendary in their own country – akin to marquee athletes in America such as Michael Jordan, Mohammed Ali, Mark McGuire or Joe Montana – where skating is a national pastime and competition is fierce with neighboring Sweden and Finland.

The Norwegian skaters made history in 1960 when their teammate Knut Johannessen was the first man to break the 16-minute barrier in the 10,000-meter race, winning the Gold Medal against the tough Russian skaters and breaking the world record by more than one minute. The speed skaters took home two of the three Norwegian Gold Medals from the Squaw Valley Olympics.

“If you say three numbers, 15, 46, 6 to any Norwegian they will tell you ‘Knut Johannessen, 1960 Olympics, Gold Medal world record time in the 10,000-meter (speed skating event)’,” Elvenes said of his “very, very famous” friend’s winning time of 15:46.6. It was just two-and-a-half tenths of a second faster than the silver medalist Kosichkin of the USSR.

Johannessen also won a silver medal in the 5,000-meter speed skating event. “The ice was fast, for an outside rink it was very smooth, Elvenes said of the artificial ice track. Teammate Roald Aas took advantage of the conditions, winning the Gold Medal in the 1,500-meter event. Alv Gjestvang took a sixth in the 500-meter. Torstein Seiersten,10,000-meter world champion in 1956, finished just out of the medals taking a 4th in the 5,000-meter and sixth in the 10,000-meter.

Dominating the speed skating events in 1960 was nothing new to the team, and it wasn’t the last time. The entire team competed in Olympic events from 1952 through 1968 earning medals in each, always finishing in the top 10 and winning numerous World Championships over the years.

“These seven boys have been competing, skating and training together for 40-50 years. We have good health and good friendship, we meet once or twice a year,” said Elvenes of the group which has formed their fellowship into the Squaw Valley Club. The fit, athletic looking men don’t ice skate much anymore. “A couple of us still skate regularly. We all cycle, cross-country ski and train at the Institute (gym),” he said of the world-class athletes. The skaters waved off attempts at getting them on the ice at High Camp. “We only skate on speed skates anyway,” Elvenes laughed.

Gjestvang, seven times the Norwegian 500-meter Champion, won an Olympic Silver at Innsbruck in 1964 and a Bronze in 1956 at Cortina, Italy. In his 10,000-meter event Johannessen won an Olympic Silver in 1956 and a bronze in 1964. He was the Norwegian National Champion eight times, medaled six times in the European Championships and was World Champion in 1957 and 1964.

Elvenes participated in four Olympic Games, earned a fifth place in the 1955 European Championships, won gold in the Norwegian Championships in 1958 and 1966 and placed sixth in the 500-meters in 1952 when the Olympics were on his home turf of Oslo, Norway. The Norway Winter Games attracted about 150,000 spectators, the most of any Olympic event. Also in front of the home crowd at the Oslo Games Aas won a bronze in the 1,500-meter speed skating event.

Fred Anton Maier carried the Norwegian streak into the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics with a Silver Medal in the 10,000-meter and a bronze in the 5,000-meter. He followed that in 1968 at Grenoble, France taking Gold in the 5,000-meter and Silver in the 10,000-meter.

The memories were flooding back as the team rode the Squaw Valley tram to the High Camp complex at the 8,200-foot level of the mountain. Each member excitedly pointed out to each other and their wives the downhill race course, the jump hill and the site where the Blyth Arena ice skating complex and the outdoor speed skating oval once stood in what is now the parking lot at the base of the mountain.

“Watching the other events, meeting the other athletes, it was a spectacular time. The other Olympics everything was scattered, here was very special,” Elvenes said.

The team, now ranging in age from 62 to 72, toured the Olympic museum at the top of the Squaw Valley tram and were happy to see their pictures on the front pages of the old newspapers on display, quickly explaining to their wives the details of the stories.

Elvenes wife of 46 years, Lila, said all the wives could do was listen to the radio to hear results, but at Innsbruck four of the wives attended. “It’s wonderful to see Squaw Valley,” she said.

Despite their fame in Norway, the skaters have never made skating a business. “One’s a gas station owner, one’s a farmer, one’s a salesman,” said Elvenes, a road engineer. “Now it is a business. The athletes train always. The equipment is better, they are much faster now,” he added.

The Norwegian team was in the Reno-Tahoe area for four days, being feted by the Sons of Norway Club with an honorary dinner in Reno.The group also attended a reception and tour of the Poulsen Compound in Squaw Valley, where Sandy Poulsen and her family have displayed photos, trophies and other 1960 Olympic and historical Squaw Valley items. The late Wayne Poulsen first had interest in the valley in 1938 and in 1947 formed the Squaw Valley Development Company, the predecessor of Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.

The complete Norwegian speed skating team were treated to a luncheon by the Squaw Valley Ski Corporation at High Camp and posed for pictures. At the luncheon, tour organizer Ellen Hoel of Reno played a tape of a direct, live-feed broadcast of the two gold medal races by Aas and Johannessen.

The play-by-play replay, originally broadcast live in Norway from Squaw Valley, was never heard before by the athletes. The excitement of the races was captured in the voice of the broadcaster, showing the astonishment of Johannessen’s incredibly fast lap times.

The athletes, hearing the tape for the first time, were leaning forward, listening to every detail. As the racers crossed the finish line the room erupted in applause. The two gold medalists stood in front of the group at High Camp, the 40-year gap in time becoming smaller and smaller as the Norwegian national anthem played on the boombox until they lived the moment again, atop the podium – tears of stoic joy and pride welling up in their eyes.


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