Three of the Norway’s top competitors are not competing in the 2021 World Alpine Championships, having sustained season-ending injuries in January. Among them is Atle Lie McGrath, who, along with fellow 20-year-old Lucas Braathen, is the new face of the Norwegian ski team. Both have already landed on a World Cup podium in their young careers. Most recently, McGrath scored second place on the challenging Gran Risa GS course at Alta Badia.
From his home in Norway, where he will be rehabbing with an eye to getting back on skis by spring, McGrath remains upbeat. Despite the disappointment of missing what would be his first World Championships, he looks forward to being able to watch the races on TV, a luxury he has missed while racing full time on the circuit.
If the name McGrath sounds familiar to American ski fans, it is because his father Felix was a top American slalom skier who placed third in the World Cup slalom standings in 1988. Atle was born in Burlington, Vt., before the family moved to Norway when he was two years old.
Where it all started
McGrath is among the eleven Norwegian national team athletes who hail from Baerums Skiklub and Dønski Ski Gymnasium in Oslo. Even in a country where winter sports are embedded in the culture, ski racing takes extraordinary effort, and no less for McGrath. Donski is only 20 minutes from his home, but without a license (driving age in Norway is 18) McGrath took public transportation to school, an hour-and-20-minute journey each way.
He’d leave home at 6:45 a.m., with all the gear and food he’d need for the day, and return home at 8 p.m. after two sessions of dryland training, school and skiing at Kirkerud, the school ski hill. At home, he’d do homework then wake up and do it all again.
“It was a period with a lot of grinding, but it builds a lot of character,” says McGrath.
The work paid off quickly. In his first year FIS, McGrath qualified for world junior championships, finishing seventh in super G and 13th in the GS, from bib 73.
A pivotal point came that spring, on a racing trip to his father’s home turf, in Vermont. At the time, McGrath had been struggling with his GS, and before leaving, borrowed a pair of HEAD GS skis to try. After one training session on them, he decided to use them on his upcoming trip. The rest, as they say, is history.
In three races McGrath scored three victories, and brought his points from the 30s into the teens. That summer he signed on with HEAD, and went to the factory, meeting the brand’s stable of race room greats, like Race Director Rainer Salzgeber and Assistant Race Director Patrick Wirth.
“I am thankful that at only 18 HEAD took me in,” says McGrath, adding with Norwegian modesty, “They kind of took a gamble.” By December, the gamble had already paid, after McGrath found the Europa Cup podium and was named to the Norwegian national team.
The following year, 2020, McGrath won the Europa Cup Overall Title and scored his first World Cup points, in SL and Parallel GS. This season, the beat went on, culminating in his GS podium at Alta Badia, and, just before his injury, an 18th place SL in Zagreb. “My goal this year was to put Head up there in SL,” says McGrath. “It’s such a stable ski.”
McGrath works closely with his tech, Mike Jöchl, who worked with Anna Fenninger for 15 years. “He’s won it all,” says McGrath. The two inspect together and talk about course set and snow conditions. “We keep it simple. If we make a couple mistakes we learn from it.” Four Norwegian teammates are also on HEAD, and McGrath discusses equipment with them, as well as with other HEAD athletes, like Alexis Pinturault. “I feel like the whole HEAD community is really open.”
To prepare for this season, and the high pressure situations he hoped to find himself in, McGrath spent last summer working with his mental coach at home.
One such moment came between runs at Alta Badia when he sat in fourth place. He recalls the atmosphere before second run was, “pretty chill,” thanks to Jöchl’s calm. He reminded himself that, “You have to have fun and give your most. The worst feeling in the world is to ski conservative.” He’d also been in the position before on the Europa Cup and thought, “This is no different. It’s just way cooler.”
The dynamic duo of Team Norway
McGrath and Braathen have skied together since they were 12. They share a healthy rivalry, sense of humor and fashion choice in their signature white neckies. McGrath says it makes him ski faster and is a purely practical accessory that keeps him cozy. The two have matched each other’s success, with Braathen achieving his first podium and win this season at Soelden.
Unfortunately they also sustained similar season-ending injuries together, to the same leg, at the Adelboden GS.
“It was the first thing we talked about in the hospital,” says McGrath. “We were almost laughing about it.” Braathen’s recovery will take longer, but they will both rehab together in Oslo at the Olympiatoppen, Norway’s “Center of Excellence” for all sports.
McGrath and Braathen have both benefitted from Norway’s strong team culture. As McGrath says, “The good thing about Norway is nobody really is the boss. Everyone has the same worth on the team.” Alexander Aamodt Kilde has been particularly helpful, taking the two youngsters under his wing. “He’s such a good skier that he’s experienced a lot of things. And he’s so kind.”
No need for speed … yet
With fourth-place finishes in the 2019 and 2020 junior world downhills and Europa Cup podiums in super G, McGrath clearly has a gift for speed as well.
“Speed is super fun. It feels like it’s natural to me when it fits in.”
He had been slated to compete in the alpine combined and possibly the super G in Cortina, but is in no rush to divert his attention to speed and the unique challenge of World Cup downhill.
For the next few years, McGrath is fully focused on making his mark in both GS and slalom and hopes to be back testing skis and working on fundamentals at the usual time, this spring.
Like father, like son
McGrath brings together lessons from his father. As a coach and then general manager at Baerums/Dønski, the elder McGrath always encouraged Atle to experience other coaches, to foster independence. “It is important to not have to rely on one coach because, in the end, it’s always up to you,” says Atle.
Nonetheless, Felix is involved, even while now working for Burke Mountain Academy. Atle shares his videos and they talk often. Atle has learned technique as well as other key skills from his father.
“He has a lot of experience when it comes to performing over many races and handling setbacks. In his prime he was a composed skier.” He also credits his father with an intangible gift: the American spirit.
Along with the image of Norwegians as “stone cold super tough Vikings,” the younger McGrath relates to his American side that “pulls passion, fire, and a love for the sport.” He grew up idolizing both Bode Miller and Ted Ligety and calls starting right in front of Ligety at Adelboden “a childhood dream come true.”
That side of him enjoys the more American way of expressing emotion. “That’s why I show it so much in the finish.”
Father and son, who are now tied with World Cup career-bests of second place, also share a competitive spirit. Says Atle: “My goal now is to beat him.”