Sixten Jernberg, Swedish Ski Legend, Dies at 83

Sixten Jernberg, multiple Olympic and World Championship medalist, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer.  He was 83.

In ten years, Jernberg won four Olympic and four World Championship gold medals.  In twelve starts over three Winter Olympics, he never finished worse than fifth place.  His nine Olympic medals was a record that stood until surpassed by Raisa Smetanina and Bjørn Dæhlie.

One of a poor family’s nine children, Jernberg began working in a forge at twelve and roamed the woods in his free time.  In a time when nobody was a full-time athlete, he worked as woodcutter and trained before and after work.

Jernberg was famous for his toughness.  In an interview with Aftonbladet, he said, “I trained always, no matter how I felt.”  He recounted taking a second workout after a day of logging, even though he was tired.  Hauling a 20-pound chainsaw and stacking wood gave him stamina for punishing workouts.  On one foray, running in boots and heavy clothing, he slipped on a rock five miles into the woods and broke some ribs.  He pushed on to the hilltop he was aiming for before returning home.

“Those were the same age had not realized that they need to train every day,” Jernberg said.  He trained whether or not he was tired and may have been the first skier to put in two-a-day workouts.  He regarded national team training camps as a vacation from his own, more demanding regimen.

Sixten Jernberg racing in 1964

Sixten Jernberg, 1964.

During the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, he finished the 50 k while battling a fever and coughing  up blood.  Despite illness, he took gold in the 30 k and silver in the 15 k races there.  At the 1961 Swedish national championships in Umeå, he competed while suffering from dysentery, losing 10 pounds in the process.

On her blog, Holly Brooks recounted a story of Gunde Svan finishing the Holmenkollen after falling and breaking his arm.  Svan may have been inspired by all the stories of Sixten Jernberg pushing himself to the brink and winning gold.