Nobody argues that ski racing is an easy sport. The amount of time, travel, brutal weather conditions and cost deters many from ever pursuing it. However, skiers in Iceland probably have it even harder than most, and the sport is slowly losing its foothold.
María Gudmundsdottir and her family left Iceland when she was 14 years old so she could pursue her ski racing career. Originally from Akureyri in northern Iceland, they relocated to Kongsberg, Norway, in 2008. Gudmundsdottir attended school and skied in Geilo until 2012 when she graduated and moved back home to Kongsberg.
Now she’s a student-athlete on the University of Alaska Seawolves squad and doesn’t know where she will live once she completes her education since she considers both Iceland and Norway to be home. Her parents and brother live in Tretten now, just 20 minutes away from Lillehammer.
Gudmundsdottir moved to Norway just before becoming a FIS-level athlete, and she said her most formative years were spent in Norway. “After I moved to Norway, I was able to train more with more stable conditions,” which is something she couldn’t say about Iceland. Gudmundsdottir’s best friend and Icelandic national teammate, Freydis Halla Einarsdottir, spent her high school years skiing in their home country before she joined the team at Plymouth State University.
Einarsdottir grew up in Gardabaer, just outside the capital city Reykjavik, in the southern part of the country. Since winters are very volatile in Iceland, the weather dictated where Einarsdottir could ski. She had to travel to northern Iceland often, where conditions were slightly better, in order to train. One winter when she was nine years old, she recalls that her home mountain only opened for about 10 total days, so she drove five hours north every weekend from December to April. The following winter, her home mountain was open for over 100 days.
Both Gudmundsdottir and Einarsdottir are on the Icelandic national team and have remained so while they attend their respective colleges. The NCAA circuit has proven to be a much more effective way for Iceland’s best skiers to train and compete in high volume. Because it has become so challenging to train in the island nation, the future of ski racing in Iceland is truly in jeopardy. The number of competitors in the country has decreased rapidly over the past decade to the point where there are now only 35 active FIS-level women and 33 men in all of Iceland.
Egill Jónsson, coach of the Icelandic national team, says there are multiple factors that have deterred young skiers from becoming racers. The first reason is the sheer commitment that the sport requires. “What’s different from when I was starting coaching and today is that you need to have your family 100 percent behind you. The family has to be participating all the way,” Jónsson says. He also notes that when he started coaching it was much easier for kids to compete by themselves, but now there are fewer opportunities. Other sports that are easier to participate in are certainly contributing to the decline in interest as well. Soccer’s popularity has grown in Iceland, and Jónsson adds it is much easier when you can play indoors year-round despite what the weather is like outside.
It’s hard for even the national team to find good training, which is why the group spends much of its time in Europe. In Europe the team can train for weeks at a time with quality conditions, whereas in Iceland it would be limited to certain periods. “Sometimes we get five, six, seven good days of weather and we just need to use those days,” Jónsson says. “Then we get periods where the ski area is closed for five or six days.” The longest period Jónsson remembers that the team was unable to train because of the weather in Iceland was 10 straight days.
Not only are the numbers of new skiers declining, but also competitive skiers in Iceland tend to end their careers very early. When high school ends at age 19, athletes tend to focus on either their studies or other sports. That’s one reason why the NCAA circuit could offer some reprieve. Of all the national team skiers, Jónsson believes the ones who are currently attending U.S. colleges probably train the most.
Einarsdottir and Gudmundsdottir may have started a trend. Their success on the collegiate circuit has already attracted more skiers to the U.S. Magnus Finnsson is one of three Icelandic athletes currently attending Colorado Mountain College (CMC). He grew up racing in Iceland and almost attended high school in Norway like Gudmundsdottir, but he found there were more opportunities for male athletes in Iceland.
He laments the tough conditions in Iceland that make it particularly challenging for the sport to grow and gain popularity. When he first started racing FIS, he had bib numbers in the 60s like most young athletes do. But this past year, there were skiers who had not ever competed in a FIS race before who were in the seed. “I feel like I wouldn’t be the same person without the challenges I’ve been through in skiing. It’s sad that a great sport like this is falling off the radar in Iceland,” Finnsson says.
At last year’s Iceland National Championships, Finnsson finished fifth in the slalom and fourth in the giant slalom. Luckily for Finnsson, CMC had athletes competing in Reykjavik as well. He had never heard of the school prior to that race.
Finnsson hopes to improve his skiing while at CMC, and he plans to go as far as the collegiate circuit will take him. He does not want to be what he considers the stereotypical Icelandic skier, an athlete who excels only at slalom, and he sees collegiate racing in the U.S. as his best opportunity to ski additional disciplines.
Einarsdottir won both the women’s slalom and giant slalom at the Icelandic Nationals, so she’s become a bit of an inspiration to others in the country. “We saw María and Freydis go to Plymouth and Alaska last year,” where they lowered their points and enjoyed it. “It’s definitely a really good option to extend your career,” Finnsson says. “Back home in Iceland people graduate junior college at the age of 20. At age 18, 19, 20 people stop skiing because they want to focus on their studies.”
Ski racers in this small Nordic nation now see their compatriots Gudmundsdottir, Einarsdottir, and Finnsson finding success on the NCAA circuit. Knowing that the option exists to continue competing and pursue an education is the kind of opportunity that might just rejuvenate the Icelandic ski racing community.