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The Ski Team That Sleeps Together Wins a Lot of Gold Medals Together


Svindal explained the social quality of the team was essential because some days their training runs might last only two minutes — if that’s the only fun you have every day, you’re going to hate your job.

“Across 250 days together, your life off the snow has to be really good,” he said.

Along those lines, there is another team canon.

“We say that you talk to each other, not about each other,” Lars Maeland, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, said.

Finally, there is one overriding, hard-and-fast team rule:

Friday night is taco night.

Eating tacos on Friday nights is a national tradition in Norway. Wherever the Norwegian men’s Alpine team is in its rolling-stone existence — parts of every summer are spent on mountains in the Southern Hemisphere — the entire team gathers on Fridays. The taco-prep duties rotate through the group. If possible, girlfriends and wives attend as well.

“That might be another, more unofficial, rule,” Maeland said. “Our girlfriends are also good friends.”

So, yes, the Norwegian men’s team, which is about a dozen racers — or roughly one-third as many skiers as there are on some of the large European teams — is a close-knit group that gets along.

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Kjetil Andre Aamodt, left, and Lasse Kjus, who combined to win 36 Olympic and world championship medals from 1992 to 2004, are credited with creating the Norwegian team’s culture.

Credit
Eric Drape/Associated Press

But what does team bonding really have to do with skiing fast? Team members are actually competing against one another in an individual sport; there is no team score at the end of each race. Also, plenty of skiers have had success with little involvement with a national team.

Jansrud, a gold medal contender at the Pyeongchang Games in the super-G, Alpine combined and downhill events, insisted that everyone’s getting along leads to good results.

“There are no secrets in terms of individual tactics or techniques on the team; we share everything we know,” he said.

Also, since ski racing is an unforgiving sport, with just one winner in each race, winning cannot be the only source of happiness, or else losing passion for the sport is inevitable. “If you have teammates who consistently lift you up, then the environment will make you happy,” Jansrud said. “You’ll work harder and stay motivated. You’re giving yourself your best chance to win.”

Putting team togetherness first was a concept passed down by past Norwegian Alpine luminaries like Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who combined to win 36 Olympic and world championship medals from 1992 to 2004.

Svindal, who joined the Norwegian World Cup team directly from the national junior program more than a decade ago, recalled how Kjus and Aamodt pulled him aside shortly after his promotion to explain that the team would always be his home.

“They told me, ‘This isn’t an N.B.A. team or something like that — you can’t be traded or sold to another team,’ ” Svindal said. “We’re all here for life. Those two guys created a culture of unity, and all we had to do was preserve it.”

But the togetherness extends in ways that would be wholly unfamiliar to an N.B.A. team. On the road, the racers — national sporting celebrities in Norway — not only share hotel rooms, they sometimes share hotel beds.

“We don’t often stay in five-star hotels, and single rooms are very rare unless we’re traveling with an odd number of athletes,” said Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen, who has been on the team for about a decade. “And sometimes our rooms will have two double beds or just one queen bed. So then it’s two guys in the same bed. We don’t really think it’s a big deal.”

Visualize, if you can, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant sharing a hotel room on the road — let alone a bed.

Shrugging his shoulders with a grin, Nestvold-Haugen agreed that was unlikely.

“Maybe that’s another part of our system that forces people on the team to get along,” he said.

Still, everything is not always entirely peaceable.

Around the dinner table, it’s a group of alpha males who all want to be the best and think they know the answer to all kinds of things, from skiing to politics to economics, said Nestvold-Haugen, who is ranked 23rd in the World Cup standings. “We don’t actually have a clue about those things, but we debate them anyway and we disagree,” he added. “But it never goes farther than that.”

From May to August, the team — en masse — usually conducts the bulk of its off-season strength and conditioning training together in the Oslo area. Other ski teams — the Americans come to mind — scatter in the off-season, except for short periods spent at the team’s headquarters in Utah.

For parts of two years beginning in 2016, there was a kerfuffle that tested the Norwegian team’s noted harmony. Henrik Kristoffersen, a 23-year-old whose impressive results this season will make him a top contender in the slalom and giant slalom, tangled with Norway’s national federation in a battle over an individual sponsorship agreement. In each season, Kristoffersen eventually joined the team and signed an agreement to abide by its regulations.

Those protocols do not officially include things like contributing positively to the social fabric or participating in taco Fridays.

“But definitely, everyone understands those rules,” said Svindal, the 35-year-old team elder.

That seems to be working.

Heading into the downhill, the Norwegians had won four silver medals and a bronze in the last six Olympic downhill races but never the top prize in the sport’s most esteemed Olympic race. Then came Thursday, a near-perfect team triumph.

“I just wanted to win,” Svindal said Thursday afternoon as he sat next to Jansrud at the postrace news conference. “And I know he wanted to win.”

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