Swedish Olympic Champion Recalls the Early Development of Skate Skiing

Jan Ottoson, Swedish Olympic Champion

Jan Ottoson, Swedish Olympic Champion

Background (by Kim McKenney):

In 1982, the American Bill Koch turned the sport of cross-country skiing on its head when he skate skied his way to the overall World Cup title.

The years that followed were a singular time in the history of cross-country skiing.

Elite athletes suddenly had to adapt to a style of skiing they hadn’t used during their developmental years. It was so new no one really knew how to do it. The 5 skate techniques we use today took years to develop and refine.

Not only that, skate skiing generated so much controversy that the rules of competition were constantly shifting, leaving athletes in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Jan Ottosson takes us back to those years, giving us a rare and fascinating account of what it was like to be a world class cross-country skier during the early years in the history of skate skiing.

Skate Skiing: A Historical Perspective

Interview with Jan Ottosson, several times Swedish champion, both individually and in relay, Olympic champion in relay in Sarajevo 1984 and Calgary 1988, winner of the Vasaloppet 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1994.

Jan Ottosson now coaches cross country skiing at Berg’s Ski Highschool in Jämtland, Sweden, and offers programs to help skiers prepare for events like the Vasaloppet. You can find him at http://www.otto-ski.com.

The interview was made May 4 – 13, 2015 by Magnus Johansson for CrossCountrySkiTechnique.com.

MJ: When and how was the first time you came in contact with the skate skiing technique in cross country skiing competitions?

JO: We started with the one-legged skate skiing technique during the season 1983-1984, you know, standing in the track and pushing with one leg. The trails were narrower in those days because the width of the cut-out course was smaller and also because the grooming was made with a snowmobile which made it pretty cramped to skate ski. (I actually believe the ski-orienteerers skated earlier than us, on the roads.)

MJ: The American Bill Koch is often mentioned as the one who introduced the skate skiing technique in cross country skiing in the form of the one-legged skate technique, also called Marathon Skate or Siitonen Step, as early as in the 1976 Olympic Games in Innsbruck.

JO: That’s correct about Bill Koch, he took a silver, if I remember correctly, at the Olympic Games in 1976. Later he saved much time in the 30 km race at the 1982 World Championships in Oslo which “Oljan” [“The Oil”, Thomas Eriksson] won, and he succeeded in taking the third place, much thanks to his skating at the beginning of all downhills in the last section of the course.

MJ: Why was it that Bill Koch was practically alone using the skating technique until 1983-1984? Was it Gunde Svan who took it up because he was an admirer of Koch and then others followed suit?

JO: Bill Koch was a pioneer, and why not more skiers were quicker in adopting the technique may have to do with trail grooming; there wasn’t space, there was loose snow on the sides of the narrow snowmobile trail, et cetera. You had to widen the trails in the summer so you got room for both techniques, and that took a lot of time.

Jan Ottosson doing the one-legged skate technique in the relay at the Sarajevo Olympic Games in 1984 (at approximately 2:50):

In the 50 km race at the same Olympic Games many skiers skated:

MJ: When did you start skating with both legs?

JO: The first time I skated with both legs was right during the ongoing season 1984-1985. It was in a competition in Grönklitt, Orsa, Sweden; I skied without any grip wax for the first time. Tried it out a little the day before. That should have been documented because it must have been a sight for the gods! It didn’t go fast uphills!

What was is really something pretty peculiar, because we (I) hadn’t at all trained or made any preparations for the skating technique, so it was like starting from scratch. The season 1984-1985 wasn’t funny. An example: Before the World Cup competitions in Falun they had built embankments to prevent skating, but took them down just before the start. So one hour before the start we didn’t know what technique to use.

A curiosity: At the Swedish Championships in Borlänge in 1985, I skied in the classic technique in the opening 30 km race, the others skated, I won. The conditions were pretty slow and the trail not so wide, but you can imagine how the tracks looked when almost everyone tried to skate!

At the World Championships in Seefeld in 1985 one could see except the Siitonen step also Diagonal Skate and Offset as in this TV recording from 45:00 and onward:

MJ: When did you in the Swedish national team systematically train the free technique and examine what subtechniques (that were later to be called “gears”) were effective in the different conditions and terrains?

JO: This thing with technique training didn’t exist, as I recall. Nobody knew how to skate ski. Everyone developed his or her own style. I skied for example the 50 km race at the Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988 with Offset practically the whole race. I never got the real hang of it until after I ended my elite career. Today I skate ski a good deal better, technically speaking, than what I did during my active career.

Like I said, we never trained gears to their full extent during my active career, we didn’t know what was right. Benny Kohlberg, for example, quit with cross country skiing because of the skating technique, so it wasn’t easy; I thought one time of doing the same myself. The first technique session I had was with Jan Rawald, and he was trainer the last season I competed, 1993-1994. The training was very secret in our time, many tested at home and developed technique on their own.

Jan Ottosson in the 50 km race at the Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988 (at 15:20 and later):

MJ: When you in the season 1984-1985 began skating with both legs, was Diagonal Skate the first to be used, for going uphills, or was Offset the first two-legged skate technique, maybe because of its similarity to the one-legged skate with its double poling simultaneous with the stride of one of the skis?

JO: The very first time I tried, it was of course with the Diagonal Skate, then it didn’t take long until Offset came, but this skating was something new, and if you weren’t good at it it wasn’t that fun all the time. One particularly leading figure though was Torgny Mogren. He had a fantastic flow in his skiing.

Many times I experienced the skate training as groping about in the dark. Nobody mastered anything in the beginning, whether it concerned skiing technique (the free technique will displace the classic technique, many prophesied), or the design of courses. Before the pre-World Championships in Oberstdorf in 1986 courses with too steep uphills were made which had to be adjusted to the World Championships the following year. For my own part I had a feeling of discomfort when one didn’t know where the development would lead and with many rumours flourishing regarding all different kinds of solutions.

I remember that “Benke” Bengtsson [Bengt Erik Bengtsson of FIS] had bought a 40 cm high green net that he, working on all fours, put up in the middle of every uphill. It probably was a few kilometer of net he had bought. We went by him skiing the course the day before the competition while he worked with the net and “Oljan” skated up the hill with one ski on each side of the net — with the net between his legs — as if nothing had happened. At that moment Benke’s jaw dropped and that net is presumably even to this day still in some barn in Cogne, Italy. This was the day before a World Cup race and nobody knew about the net …

MJ: So Torgny Mogren was important in the development of the freestyle technique. He had a very rhythmic and, like you say, fluent style. I believe that was due to his musicality and coordination which his drumming had developed. What do you think of that?

JO: What you say about Torgny is correct, then he was also a promising hockey player in his youth who later chose cross country skiing …

MJ: Torgny was however a late adopter of One Skate, and for a long time shifted directly from Offset to Two Skate like, for example, also Gunde Svan did. In Finnish, Two Skate is called Mogren which perhaps says something about Torgny’s importance in skiing technique development.

Regarding One Skate, one can see it being used at the World Championships in Oberstdorf in 1987 by among others the Swiss skiers Guidon and Sandoz, Deola of Italy, Timms of Australia and Korunka of Czeckoslovakia, but despite that, Offset was perhaps the “standard gear” of that time, and even though One Skate is called Wassberg in Finnish, I do not know if Thomas Wassberg can be seen using it at any time during the 50 km race at the 1987 World Championships. Today, One Skate is something of a “standard or universal gear” that is used in uphills, to increase tempo or give it all in a sprint finish, or even to save energy on the flats. What is your view on that?

JO: It’s correct what you say about One Skate, the problem for us was grooming, there weren’t that good training possibilities, they were better abroad where they used grooming machines. I know that Wassberg skated on the slalom slopes in Ramsau before the World Championships in Oberstdorf. The Norwegians had even greater problems with the changes needed for the preparation of good trails.

MJ: When did you in the Swedish national team start to train free technique on roller skis? Was roller skiing in the free technique a method of training to compensate for the lack of courses wide enough in the winter?

JO: I checked with Thomas Wassberg and he doesn’t remember that he trained “pure” skating on roller skis. When looking through old training diaries I find pure skating sessions in the summer of 1988. Thomas quit in the winter the same year, so it may be quite accurate that the skate roller skis began being used that summer. Regarding the continental Europeans being good at skating, that may be correct because on the continent grooming machines were used early on and the trails were often in open meadows. That may be one part of it, that the training possibilities were better down there at an early stage so they could train skating properly (which like I said was a greater problem in Norway, if I recall correctly).

This interview was conducted in Swedish via email, translated by Magnus Johansson, and lightly revised by CrossCountrySkiTechnique.com

Magnus Johansson is a Swedish musician, musicologist, teacher and author who has been cross country skiing since early childhood. He has an open research forum about a certain aspect of percussion playing technique at http://doublemalletgrips.wordpress.com

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