It was the final day of the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville. Thousands of cars and buses crept along a twisting mountain road from Moûtiers to Les Menuires in the French Alps. Fans waving national flags packed the mountainside of the small resort on the backside of Meribel. They came to see Alberto Tomba win his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. Instead, they watched a little known Norwegian steal it away.
Norway’s Finn Christian Jagge was a journeyman slalom skier whose career spanned eight World Championships and four Olympics. His passing this week at the age of 54 has brought back memories not just of a ski racer who rode the evolutionary wave of slalom technique in the 1990s, but of a friend who brought charisma and caring for others to the white circus. He later carried that to America as a coach at both Burke Mountain Academy and Sugar Bowl Academy, influencing a generation of U.S. ski racers.
The Olympic champion died Wednesday (July 8) in Norway following what his wife Trine-Lise referred to as an acute illness. She broke the news to the world with a touching Facebook post: “Our greatest love, our greatest hero, the world’s best Daddy and the world’s best Master Hubby, died today, after acute illness. It is indescribably painful and we are completely shattered.”
Known by the nickname Finken, he carved out a 17-year tenure with the Norwegian Ski Team. Despite injuries, he was omnipresent in slalom during nearly the entire span of his career. Along the way, he carved out seven World Cup slalom wins to go with the Olympic gold.
Jagge came into the 1992 Olympic season on fire. He opened with a career best fifth in Park City, then went on to finish second to Tomba in Sestriere. A week later under the lights in Madonna di Campiglio, Jagge beat the heavily favored Italian to spoil the evening for thousands of screaming Italian fans. At the Olympics in Les Menuires, Jagge took a big first run lead as Tomba faltered and fell to sixth. The Italian came storming back, but couldn’t match Jagge and settled for silver.
The wins of Jagge in the slalom and Kjetil Andre Aamodt in super-G a week earlier were the first two Olympic gold medals for Norway since Stein Eriksen won in 1952. Heading to their own Olympics in Lillehammer in just two years, it ushered in the era of the Attacking Vikings – a period of dominance by Norway in alpine ski racing that continues today, nearly three decades later.
“He kept the sport alive in the ‘80s and was an incredibly important pioneer for everything that has happened since,” said Aamodt in an interview with Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “Together with Atle Skårdal and Ole Kristian Furuseth, Finken lifted Norwegian skiing.”
Jagge came from an athletic family. His father was a professional tennis player and his mother skied in two Olympics. He was known as a hard worker – first on the hill and last off. His work ethic allowed him to forge a career that spanned dramatic changes in slalom technique. He became the first to win a World Cup on shorter shaped skis with his 1999 victory at Madonna di Campiglio in his final season.
“Nobody expected that – especially on that hill!” said former Austrian World Cup racer Kilian Albrecht. “But he did it. And everyone got that wake up call.”
Jagge had a notable impact on the U.S. Ski Team, which trained frequently with the Norwegians. “I knew Finken quite well in the ‘90s,” said former U.S. Ski Team coach Thor Kallerud. “We trained with the Norwegians frequently. He was an outstanding athlete but also an outstanding person. I most remember his positive smile and attitude.”
Former U.S. Ski Team slalom star Felix McGrath recalls his time with Jagge and Furuseth well as they trained together from the mid ‘80s. “At that time, both the American and Norwegian teams were, quite frankly, not very good,” said McGrath. “Furuseth had a breakout year in 1989 and Jagge paved the way for the Norwegians after that. Together, they were joined at the hip.”
Ironically, McGrath worked for a decade at Jagge’s home club in Oslo, the Bærums Skiklub. Once he invited Jagge to give our awards at a club championship. “Finn showed up in his typical humble way, very incognito,” recalled McGrath. “When I announced that an Olympic champion would be giving out the awards, the room went silent. The young skiers at first seemed intimidated. But his natural, relaxed demeanor turned it into a great celebration of the club’s history. The kids couldn’t wait to meet him.”
Despite their competitiveness as athletes, Tomba and Jagge were friends. After their matchup in the 1992 Olympic slalom, the two medalists waited in the finish that day to hoist the final competitor from Costa Rica on their shoulders. In expressing his condolences this week, Tomba recalled the time of his own retirement race in 1998 at Crans-Montana when Jagge and teammate Hans Petter Buraas lifted him on their shoulders in celebration.
Two years later, Jagge closed the curtain on his racing career in style, putting on a tuxedo and carving his final race turns down the hill in Bormio at the World Cup Finals.
During his career, Jagge was long known for giving back. Each spring, he twisted the arms of his fellow World Cup stars to come to Oslo for a challenge race on the steep landing hill of the towering Holmenkollen ski jump. The Finken Cup, which ran from 1995-2002, featured the stars of the sport in front of thousands of fans – all for the benefit of children’s causes.
Jagge’s 1997 slalom win on the steep face of International at Vail helped earn him a spot in the annual American Ski Classic, where he became one of the most popular attendees. “He was a very dynamic and classy guy,” said longtime Vail leader John Garnsey. “He was a popular team captain and loved by his fellow Legends.”After leaving the sport and still wanting, Jagge literally chose America. Kirk Dwyer, then the new headmaster of Burke Mountain Academy, recalled the spring day when he got a random phone call from the Norwegian star asking him if he had any job openings.
Dumbfounded, Dwyer quickly agreed. “This was a period at Burke when we were in a rebuilding phase athletically and culturally,” said Dwyer. When Dwyer started at Burke a year earlier, he had recruited former Austrian World Cup slalom coach Wolfgang Frandl, who had also coached at Stratton Mountain School and Green Mountain Valley School, as program director. “The combination of Wolfgang and Finn provided the depth of understanding of what it meant to be the very best and an associated confidence in a positive trajectory we would be the best,” said Dwyer.
Jagge took over the men’s FIS program in 2002, then took on a similar role at the Sugar Bowl Ski Academy in California for a year in 2004.
“He and Trine were only at BMA for a short period. But it was significant to our program, more so with developing a culture of high expectations and confidence in our ability to achieve. When you see the pictures of his broad effervescent smile it represents his daily demeanor. Finn enjoyed life, loved ski racing, loved his family, and made the most of each day.
“In our weird, small world of ski racing, I was one of the lucky ones who got to ski for him,” said Stefan Hughes, now a coach at University of Colorado. “Finn was a legend for us. We grew up watching him race and now, man, this was our coach!”
Hughes was one of a group of Burke men’s FIS athletes who spent parts of two seasons with Jagge. “He was very confident,” Hughes recalled. “He was always sure of what we were doing. He was proud of his own accomplishments, but very humble. I’ll never forget that.”
Jagge taught them the fundamentals of technique, with a big focus on a solid upper body to allow your feet to be free. “He was a simple coach – he didn’t bog you down with details.”
He also instilled a sense of competition, with races to see who would get the best seat in the van.
Seeking to opt for a different climate, Jagge and his wife left for Sugar Bowl in 2004.
“Finn was such a positive soul – always a welcoming smile,” said former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Bill Hudson, who hired him at Sugar Bowl. “I can remember him showing up at Sugar Bowl with gifts for us – including, Norwegian aquavit, of course. His amazing willingness to share was a once in a lifetime benefit for our athletes.”
After a year at Sugar Bowl, he returned to Norway for a two-season stint as head women’s coach, before settling into a career in marketing, production and TV commentary. He even did a stint on Norway’s version of Dancing with the Stars, Skal vi danse? (Shall we dance?). In recent years, he and his wife Trine-Lise have managed a successful executive search firm, Dynamic People AS, in Norway.
As tributes have mounted in the days following his passing, the world has gotten to know more about the smile and the caring of the Olympic champion. Sugar Bowl’s Hudson summed it all up. “Finn taught us that giving it your all with a smile was what counts the most. Finn never let you forget how fun ski racing can be.”