Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Before They Were Arctic Explorers: Fridtjof Nansen, Ice Skater


I'm a big fan of the How Stuff Works podcasts and after listening to the Stuff Mom Never Told You episode "Antarctic Women" I remembered someone that I've had on my "to write about" list for quite a while: Norwegian Arctic explorer, scientist, humanitarian, Nobel Prize winner and (you guessed it) skater Fridtjof Nansen. Just to give you a little background on his polar pursuits, Nansen achieved international fame when he reached a northern latitude of 86°14′ during his expedition to the North Pole from 1893 to 1899. Before that, he made the first treacherous crossing of Greenland's interior in 1888. It's incredible stuff! There are countless wonderful biographies of Nansen's exploits as a pioneer in the exploration of the Arctic and Greenland so as much as I'd love to write a whole book on that chapter of Nansen's story, I'm going to try to focus here on a little known part of the Fridtjof Nansen story: his previous incarnation as a skater.

Nansen's family was no stranger to adventure. One of his ancestors was Hans Nansen, a seventeenth century mayor of Copenhagen who himself was an explorer of Russia's white sea. He grew up in a well to do family in Christiania (near Oslo) and although he was an immensely intelligent and curious youth, he was also outstanding in athletics. Nansen was not only a talented tumbler and swimmer but he won twelve consecutive Norwegian cross country skiing titles! Ironically, his talent for skiing would later prove absolutely essential in his crossing of Greenland in 1888.



A talented skater as well by all accounts, at the age of fifteen Nansen won a five kilometer boy's speed skating race held in front of a sizable audience on a frozen inlet of the Christiania Fjord. Here's where we throw the metric system out the window for a minute, but don't worry, it's for an exciting reason! After his skating win at fifteen, he went on to break the world record for one mile skating at the age of eighteen in 1879. He'd had a little practice though. Nansen started ice skating at the age of TWO, the same year that the FIRST speed skating competition of any note was held in Oslo. Although at ease skating on ice, he almost fell through it once while traveling, as he recounted in his 1925 book "Sporting Days In Wild Norway": "The sleigh bells rang out merrily in the night air. The shining ice of Kröderen stretched before me into the darkness. Teeming stars looked down from above. And my thoughts tripped in time to the sleigh bells as I drove... The capital with its feverish gaiety lay far behind.  I was bound once more for the freedom of the mountains. The dance music of the previous evening still echoed spasmodically through my brain. What a contrast! Along the shores of Kröderen Lake, at the foot of the shadowy hills, the lights of farms and cottages twinkled hospitably athwart the darkness. Ineffable peace. The course of life flows onward so safely, so serenely amid these silent slopes; but down there in the town... Crunch; the horse broke through some cat ice. I was startled out of my reverie to urge him forward, and drove on briskly towards Oldberg, sometimes over smooth ice, sometimes through more cat ice which splintered so that the pieces flew in showers… There were long stretches where I could drive on the river itself which was covered with smooth skating ice... Suddenly the horse’s foot went through the ice. A jerk of the reigns, and we were saved.  It was as well to keep one’s eyes open, though, for there were treacherous holes, after the long thaw... Down on the river I could hear the swish and hum of skates on the ice, mingled with the shouts and laughter of skaters; they seemed to be enjoying themselves, for the darkness had not yet driven them indoors. I passed by a house, and heard the peremptory voice of the housewife call into the darkness: 'Well, aren't they coming?' And a girls voice replied in the Hallingdal dialect:  'Na-ay, I've screeched till I’m hoarse, but I cawn't mak' them hear.' In a flash I saw my own childhood before my eyes: when the ice lay smooth on the river and the lake it was no easy matter, I promise you, to make us come home to our lessons!"

The sixth volume of the 1891 volume "American Notes And Queries" states that when Nansen went on his dangerous trek across Greenland's desolate interior, he used skates to cross some of the ice fields with his Norwegian and Lapp compatriots but I couldn't find a primary source to confirm that. If that WAS the case, it certainly hearkens back to the Eight Banner Ice Skating Battalion in China, doesn't it?


Fittingly, in 1952, Fridtjof Nansen's grandson Eigel Nansen lit the Olympic flame at the Oslo Olympics in honor of his grandfather, a winter sports pioneer and legend in his country. It seems only fitting that a talented skiier, skating and infallible human being be recognized at a Winter Olympic Games in what was his home country. Although Nansen passed away suddenly in 1930, his memory lives on not only in that Olympic flame but in everything from mountains to islands to ski clubs to ships named in his honor around the world. Nansen not only touched Norway's history but WORLD history with his life's work and I thought a nod to his skating connection - even if it wasn't specifically a FIGURE skating connection - was absolutely appropriate.

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