As the snow fell in Are, Sweden, and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal crossed the finish line for the last time in the 2019 World Championship downhill, the stadium erupted in cheers as a sea of Norwegian flags waved to say goodbye to their beloved superstar. Svindal finished with a silver medal that day, a slim 0.02 seconds behind his teammate and close friend, Kjetil Jansrud.
“Are felt very Norwegian today,” the 36-year-old said after the race.
In many ways, Svindal’s final race was a near-perfect embodiment of his career. Simply put, the man had fans wherever the World Cup went and there were many times when foreign finish areas ended up feeling pretty Norwegian after Svindal crossed the line. Arms outstretched in the finish, Svindal looked up and thought to himself, “‘Let’s just enjoy this, this is the last moment.”
It’s natural to expect a slew of World Cup retirements following a major championship season, but Svindal’s sudden retirement announcement at January’s Hahnenkamm races in Kitzbuehel, Austria, surprised many. After taking part in the opening downhill training run in Kitzbuehel, Svindal abruptly pulled out of the week’s races to save his ailing knee for the fast-approaching World Championships. That weekend, at a black-tie gala celebrating the historic World Cup stop, Svindal took to the stage and announced to the crowd that the races at the 2019 World Championships would be his last as a professional ski racer. He received a standing ovation.
“I think it’s been a process over a longer period,” Svindal said the day after his announcement. “This whole winter I kind of knew that it could possibly be my last one. More and more, I’ve had some troubles with old injuries that can’t handle the extreme conditions of the World Cup that well. I think that just pushed my decision a little bit. I have no regrets. I know it’s the right thing to do.”
The big Norwegian had been on top of the speed world for the better part of a decade before a horrific crash in the 2016 edition of the Hahnenkamm downhill left him sidelined with a shredded meniscus and ACL. The recovery from that injury was slow and even required a second surgery mid-way through the following season, ending his hopes of competing at the 2017 World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Eventually, Svindal did bounce back from his injury. The next season, he managed to win three World Cups, including the Kitzbuehel super-G, in the lead-up to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Still limiting his time on snow due to lingering pain in his knee, Svindal finally captured Olympic downhill gold, adding yet another accomplishment to his impressive resume.
Svindal’s lasting legacy, however, might have less to do with his four Olympic medals, nine World Championship medals, two Overall World Cup titles, nine discipline crystal globes, and 36 World Cup victories than you might think. Instead, Svindal endeared himself to teammates, rivals, and fans alike by the simple fact that he is — by all accounts — a genuinely nice guy.
26-year-old Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde grew up idolizing Svindal and burst onto the scene during the 2016 season, rocketing from relative obscurity on the World Cup to win an overall super-G title that spring. When Kilde first qualified for the Norwegian national team as a junior, Svindal took the talented teenager under his wing, showing him the ropes and helping with his transition to racing on the world’s biggest stage.
“It’s always fun to travel around with them because they are so serious and they are so experienced and good,” Kilde says of Svindal and his teammates. “They know exactly what to do at any time, I feel like. When I’m traveling around with them, I learn a lot of things not only on the hill, but also with equipment, handling the media, everything. I can ask them and I know exactly what I’ll get back: a good answer. That’s how it’s been since the beginning. Ever since I first started on the team, those guys have been there to help me and support me. It’s really amazing.”
Svindal’s approach to team building wasn’t new on the Norwegian team as Svindal himself credits much of his early success to shadowing other Norwegian greats like Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, themselves titans of the sport in their time. In Svindal’s eyes, he was simply passing on their legacy.
Svindal even took a group of his young teammates to a Guns N’ Roses concert on an off-day during a summer training camp in Chile two summers ago.
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“The success of the team is built through many years,” adds Jansrud. “We just try to take care of the heritage and build on it. The team has been strong and we’re pushing each other every day. We’ll try and make it continue, obviously, but it’s not easy and if there’s any secrets I wouldn’t tell you because we’d like to keep this going.”
Following the storybook end to Svindal’s career in Are, dedications poured in over social media as throwback photos and touching personal stories were shared by figures from across the sport.
“You’re truly a champion, on and off the slopes,” American legend Lindsey Vonn shared. “You’ve had some incredible crashes, Kitzbuehel 2016 was insane, and even more incredible comebacks. Thanks for always inspiring me to push harder. Cheers to the memories my friend!”
Although Svindal may not ever set foot in a World Cup starting gate again, he isn’t planning on fading into oblivion. A noted businessman, Svindal recently launched a fashion brand, Greater Than A, which is focused on building a sustainable brand and producing high quality, functional clothing that does no harm to the planet. The Norwegian has also spent time in California’s Silicon Valley, meeting with startups and exploring business ventures in the technology mecca of the United States.
The emotions of Svindal’s departure from the World Cup were perhaps summed up best by Jansrud, who has spent countless hours training shoulder to shoulder with his good friend, trading blows race after race, and is now prepared to carry the torch as the leader of the Attacking Vikings into the future.
“Hi Champ,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “An era is over, and the time has come. Thank you for everything you have given me, us, and the team. A champion on and off the slopes, and rest assured we will manage the Attacking Vikings to the best of our abilities. A giant has left, but the legacy lives on.”