“That feeling when you’re in the starting gate,” Aksel Lund Svindal says. “It’s minus five degrees Celsius, a perfect crisp day. The sun is right there. There’s no wind. The conditions are perfect. To be at the starting gate. To know that the pressure is all on you. If you do this well, if you have the guts to follow through on the plan you created, you can win this. You know you’re one of the best guys in the world, so it’s yours to take. Don’t do anything stupid. But you really have to go fast.”
It is a perfect March day in Aspen, Colorado, though the weather is an unseasonably warm 64 degrees Fahrenheit, 20 degrees above the historical average. The sky is clear and deeply blue. It’s day one of the World Cup Finals, the culminating event in professional skiing, and the most exciting because the downhill event runs today, the first time the World Cup has been raced here on the America’s Downhill course at Aspen Mountain in 22 years.
But Svindal can only talk about being in the gate and its attending nervousness, excitement and focus. Because instead of racing in the finals, the six-foot-three, 227-pound, 34-year-old Norwegian, one of the greatest living ski racers of all time with 32 World Cup wins over the course of 14 seasons — including two overall titles, eight World Championship medals, and three Olympic medals, including gold — is in a cut-off t-shirt and shorts, sitting on the concrete floor in the basement of the Jean Robert’s gym a few blocks from Aspen mountain. He’s mounting what will be his final comeback in the sport.
In the basement, Svindal sits with his with his right leg extended over a foam roller, extending it and relaxing it in sets of 100 between other workouts to strengthen the leg and make sure he doesn’t lose the ability to extend it fully, which would cost him his skiing form. Svindal is focused on the exercise and obsessed with his body. It’s his means of conveyance down icy slopes at very fast speeds. There is no room for physical weakness in a sport with such narrow margins of victory: in downhill racing, a second is often the difference between first place and dead last. The consequences of a split-second mistake can end a career. Svindal knows this, because he has damaged and rebuilt his body many times in the pursuit of greatness in his sport.
Svindal has worked with Oakley to overcome one of the biggest challenges in the sport: variable light conditions and glare that make it nearly impossible to see snow contours, bumps and textures during a race.
The big crash happened in 2007, at Beaver Creek in Vail. After winning the 2006–2007 World Cup overall title and the individual titles for GS and combined, Svindal hit a jump off-balance, traveling faster than 70 mph, sending him nearly 200 feet before he was stopped by the safety fences. He sustained injuries that included several facial and cranial fractures, broken teeth, cracked ribs and a laceration from a ski that cut through his left glute and into his groin, up to four inches deep in some places.
He missed a year in recovery and then came back to win the World Cup overall title in 2008-2009, including wins at Beaver Creek in the downhill and super-G races, which puts that incident mostly in the past. Today he’s dealing with the blown out knee that’s now been repaired twice by doctors.
Svindal, as his fastidiously updated Instagram account suggests, is very much driving these decisions with the doctors. “I work better if I have to take responsibility for my decisions,” Svindal says. “Small ones and big ones.”
Svindal makes all kinds of decisions you wouldn’t expect from an athlete, and some that you would. He negotiates his own contracts (with help from his father, an accountant). He doesn’t have a publicist or a handler. And, during his downtime from the surgery, he’s visited Silicon Valley several times; he’s investing in technology companies, looking ahead to a future when he’s no longer skiing.
He’s also intimately involved with his sponsors, providing continuous feedback about skis, boots, bindings and eyewear with the intention of gaining that extra edge through constant fine-tuning. He’s worked with Oakley, for instance, to overcome one of the biggest challenges in the sport: variable light conditions, in combination with reflection and glare, that make it nearly impossible to see snow contours, bumps and textures during a race. While Oakley’s R&D team solved the issue of contrast with their Prizm technology, Svindal pushed for the widest field of view possible by removing the frame from his field of vision, taking advantage of the lenses.
Those will only help him if he’s back on the slopes, though. So now, Svindal is up on the bosu ball for balance work. He’s standing on the flat side doing squats that simulate a full tuck into skiing position. He does three sets of 25 looking straight ahead into the mirror, looking fast even though he’s not going anywhere. At the end of each set he introduces challenges to throw off his balance, because during a downhill run, a choppy course combined with high speeds and incredible amounts of force makes staying on your skis quite a challenge. (It’s generally reported that skiers experience as much as 3.5 Gs when flying around a turn, with their bodies positioned near parallel to the ground, which is greater than astronauts during a shuttle launch and basically makes their bodies feel that many times as heavy.) He completes his sets on the bosu ball with his eyes closed, shaking his head back and forth.
Next, it’s upstairs to the leg extension machine, partway through the rest of today’s workout, which will include many more sets of 100, leg draped over the foam roller, step-ups and leg presses.
What is ultimately striking about Svindal, beyond his work ethic, is his unique brand of practicality and near-imperturbable optimism. “Everyone likes to accomplish things,” he says. “Everyone likes to feel comfortable. What’s that — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The top one, I think, directly translated from Norwegian, is ‘self-realization.’ Selvrealisering, in Norwegian. The feeling that you can reach your goals and take out your full potential — that’s something humans need to feel. Some are born with a greater ambition, but everyone likes it.”
Svindal has committed to being a ski racer — and to a sport in which he accepts the risk of being badly injured. Likewise, he trusts that the team of world-class doctors will put him back together well enough for him to tune his body up to become the best ski racer in the world again. Something that uncertain requires the greatest ambition.
That, plus a pretty strong desire to win.
“The Olympics next year would be awesome,” Svindal says, finishing his last set of leg extensions. He has the same sort of look on his face and tone of voice that he had when he described being in the starting gate. In his head, he’s there now.
“Kitzbühel, where I was injured, would be awesome. World Championships in Åre the year after that — where I won my first World Championship gold — eleven years later?
“That would be cool.”
The Champion’s Racing Kit
Goggle: Oakley Canopy Prizm $180
“The best manufacturer in the world, constantly evolving their lenses. They work a lot with getting better contrast on snow. Check out the fire color — the only lens I’ve ever tried that is great across pretty much any light condition. Oakley is always looking to improve their products. This is done a lot through research with athletes. They ship us different variations of new ideas and features, and then we use the different lenses for training and give feedback on performance.”
“Our equipment is custom. But it has a lot of the same technology you see in their consumer skis. For a ski and boot very similar to what we use, check out their line of giant slalom race skis.”
Helmet: Sweet Protection Rooster Discesa RS $695+
“I designed the first downhill ski helmet they made, and we’ve worked closely together since then.”
Poles: Swix DHC IPM Carbon Composite Learn More
“They come from cross-country skiing, where poles are super important, both for stiffness and weight. So they make the advanced carbon poles.”
Gloves: Swix Svindal Signature Pro GS Learn More
“The gloves I made with them. Leather, with metal protection where needed.”