From Norwegian roots, skier sprouts into U.S. competitor WINTER OLYMPICS

February 10, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The American in John Aalberg believes in miracles. The Norwegian trusts in logic.

The American will march proudly behind the stars and stripes. The Norwegian will be so moved during the opening ceremonies the Winter Olympics that he will sing a national anthem that translates to "Yes We Love This Country."

He is excited. He is calm. He is a walking contradiction of an American cross country skier born and raised in the center of Norway.

"I have become more and more an American," Aalberg said. "I'm sure there will be times during the next few weeks where the Norwegian side will take over. Otherwise, I'd be moving back here."

Aalberg, 33, is competing in his second and final Olympics for the United States. In all likelihood, he also will be closing out his international career on his native turf.

RTC He is with the Davids now, going up against the Goliaths of cross country skiing.

They invented the sport here. And they love it with such passion that thousands will camp in the woods for days just to catch a glimpse of snow- covered men and women skiing against the clock.

The most coveted ticket in the country is for the men's 4x10-kilometer relay. More than 50,000 fans will pack the finish area. There is a ticket waiting list of 200,000.

Consider: The American racers performed before their largest domestic crowds in years when 500 fans showed up last month for the Olympictrials in Anchorage, Alaska.

"Usually, we ski in front of no one," Aalberg said. "You know, we race in front of the trees.

"We're like a college basketball team playing the Chicago Bulls. The gap between us and the Norwegians is that big. We're

closing that gap every year. In an endurance sport, though, it is not something you can do in a year or two."

Aalberg knows first-hand the passion Norwegians have for cross country skiing. He was raised in Stjordal, a town of 15,000 that lies at the end of a fjord 300 miles north of Oslo.

He learned to ski as a 3-year-old, and eventually grew swift enough to make one of Norway's three national teams. But he never could break into the top 10.

"You have to remember," he said, "when I was growing up, every Norwegian boy dreamed of being an Olympic cross country skier."

In 1983, after the death of his mother, Sigrid, Aalberg received a ++ scholarship offer from the University of Utah. He grabbed it and skied one season for the school, eventually settling for good in the United States.

"Here, in Norway, everyone has a good life," he said. "Even if you don't try hard, you'll be OK. But I am an individualist. In the United States, you have freedom."

Aalberg skied and worked, becoming a U.S. national team member and a computer programmer for Unisys. He received his U.S. citizenship on the eve of the 1992 Albertville Games and finished 18th in the 10-kilometer classical race.

"Cross country skiing is very hard," he said. "But there is such a nice feeling to glide on some thing soft and white. Downhills exhilarate you, and uphills challenge you. It's not the race that matters. You have a great feeling when you're done. And you're probably among the healthiest people in the world."

He is a pensive, analytical man, the kind who reads the biography of physicist Richard Feynman for pleasure.

But he is also a dreamer, of sorts. In the back of his mind, he said, there is the hope, the ambition, to challenge the Norwegians for medals.

"I'm too practical," he said. "I dream about it, of course. But it is almost impossible. Miracles don't happen in this sport."

So he will settle for the cheers of the crowd, the beauty of the race, the pride of the finish.

Among the thousands with tickets to all the cross country events is Aalberg's father, Hermod.

"Of course, he wants Norway to win," he said. "But my dad will be rooting for me. At least, he better be."

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