Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegard the Viking

In the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Norwegian skiier Vegard Ulvang, called ‘the Viking’, became a national hero by winning three gold medals in the 10 km and 30 km cross-country races, and in the 4x10 cross-country relay, and a silver in the pursuit.  His popularity soared: He was chosen as the most loved by residents of Norway - besting even the King - and Norwegians named the children after him in numbers.  The next winter Olympics were only two years later, and in Ulvang’s home country, so expectations were high for him to match, or even exceed, his record showing.  However, that was not to be: by the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the celebrated skiier’s prowess had slumped considerably, not due to age or poor conditioning, but due to a sudden and high-profile tragedy in his family.  

Ketil Ulvang was Vegard’s older brother by two years, and the two of them grew up in the snowy fields of extreme northeastern Norway near the small town of Kirkenes, far above the Arctic Circle.  They spent their childhood in the area, setting out on skis or on foot, hunting and hiking through the wilderness.  The area is remarkably remote; Vegard once remarked, “From our house, you can walk for 14 days without seeing a man or crossing a road.”  As adults, Ketil - a physical therapist by trade - advised and accompanied Vegard on his training as a matter of routine, and accompanied him to exotic training excursions; the pair climbed Mount Blanc together, completing a marathon crossing of Greenland on skis, and had even been detained together for four days in Mongolia, questioned by hard-nosed security agents after their guide attempted to defect to Russia.  They scaled Mount McKinley, and on the way down, Ketil fell in freezing water; Vegard and another friend dove in to fish him out, and after reviving Ketil, Vegard remained with his brother for hours until the friend summoned a helicopter rescue crew.

On the evening of October 13, 1993, as Vegard was away training in Italy’s Dolomite Alps, Ketil spoke with some students in the neighboring town of Neiden, then delivered lesson plans to another who lived nearby.  With night having fallen, he rode back toward his home with some friends, but then hopped out of the car with about 25 km (15 miles) to go, saying he preferred to jog the rest of the way, even though it would take him over a mountain ridge called Munkeneset.  For most, 15 miles over a 1,000 foot high peak, at night, in the snow and wind, in northern Norway in October, would be daunting (if not suicidal), but Ketil was in superior physical shape, and, having travelled them regularly in far worse conditions, was intimately familiar with the landscape.  Ketil was well capable of running 12 to 15 miles at a time, so he was confident in his ability to make the trip in only about two hours, in plenty of time to watch the Norway-Poland World Cup qualifier match with his youngest brother, Morten, who was waiting for his arrival.

After five hours, Ketil had not appeared, and a heavy snowstorm was rolling in.  Morten, his uncle, and a friend set out to find Ketil, to no avail.  They called others, and before long the word was out that Vegard Ulvang’s brother was missing.  Hundreds of volunteers from all over Norway streamed in, including some in helicopters and armed with heat-detecting lasers, along with generous cash donations.  Vegard himself flew back from Italy the next day, skis in tow, and immediately began scouring the area where he and Ketil spent much of their youth, personally covering 30 to 40 miles per day for weeks.  The Norwegian police’s Search and Rescue teams covered the area for four full days, twice as long as their usual protocol allows.  Top-tier detectives, teams of bloodhounds, and even several psychics lent their expertise, but there was still no sign of Ketil.

Despite Ketil’s intimate knowledge of the terrain, there were many hazards in that area.  Ketil had been warned earlier in the evening about bears, who roam the areas frequently.  If he had been knocked unconscious after a fall, the snow could have covered him, concealing him from the searchers.  Some began also to float the theory that he had been hit by a car by accident, and the driver hid his body to escape prosecution.  Due to its proximity to Russia, the area is also frequented by smugglers, and so others were beginning to suspect foul play, especially after several witnesses reported seeing another jogger whom no one was able to subsequently identify.  After the searching stretched on, Vegard stated that the thought Ketil fell in some water - a frozen pond, maybe, its surface disguised by the falling snow - and drowned.

The search continued fervently, but the volunteers were fatigued, the donated money was all gone, and the wintry weather was getting dramatically worse.  Volunteers, angry and upset but unable to continue, steadily returned to their homes.  Heartbroken, Vegard abandoned the search in late November and returned to his Olympic training.  It was clear throughout the training and the Olympics that his heart was not in the competition, however - he stated in interviews that he fully expected to return at the spring thaw to continue searching for Ketil.  "I will go back and keep looking for Ketil in the spring," Vegard said. "I will look until I find him."  

After dominating the 1992 Olympics, and despite his teammate Bjorn Daehlie winning four medals, Vegard Ulvang performed disappointingly, capturing only one silver medal in a team event.  In the spring, after the Olympics had ended, the searching resumed, and after only a single day, a volunteer spotted Ketil’s red jacket, floating in an icy pond.  His brother Vegard’s supposition had been true; Ketil was following a set of power lines, and the snow had obscured a pond whose ice had not completely frozen over.  

Two days after Ketil’s discovery, his girlfriend gave birth to a healthy baby boy, conceived just before Ketil’s disappearance.  Vegard and the Ulvang family have taken great joy in the baby’s arrival.  “I try to remember that this is nature.  People come and go, just like nature does,” Vegard later said.  “The baby means a lot to us.  It gives us something back.”

Links and Sources:

Clarey, Christopher, “Vegard Ulvang's Lonely Quest; Norway's Olympic Hero Seeks Gold, and Something Far More Precious”, New York Times, December 13, 1993, available here.

Schmitz, Brian, “Norway Skiing Hero Vegard Ulvang Has More Than Medals On His Mind”, Orlando Sentinel, February 13, 1994, available here.
Husar, John, “A Nation Stands at Attention: Norway Set to Salute Hero Ulvang’s Quest”, Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1994, available here.
Johnson, William Oscar, “The Last Viking”, Sports Illustrated, January 24, 1994.