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Norwegian athletes translate to DU athletic success

DU's Norwegian athletes gathered on May 17th to celebrate the Norway's Constitution Day.

It is not a globe-crossing pipeline that makes any sort of logistical sense — not culturally, not economically and certainly not geographically.

Nonetheless, the transcontinental shuttle between Norway and Colorado continues to be a remarkable boon to the University of Denver’s athletic program. Long a haven for Norwegian skiers looking to ply their trade — and gain an education — at the collegiate level, DU welcomes athletes from Norway ready to help the Pioneers in many sports venues besides the ones that happen on mountain slopes.

“There is no parallel to NCAA athletics in Europe,” says DU Nordic head coach Dave Stewart. “I think the more people learn about [DU], the more they realize what a great opportunity we have to offer.

“I recently had a couple of researchers here from Norway that were in town for a conference. I took them on a tour of our facilities. They saw our weight room. They saw our classrooms. They saw our athletic offices and venues. And they were blown away. They said that anyone not on a team in Norway should go to DU. You just don’t have that in Europe, where you have an opportunity to get a high level of [education] while also competing athletically at a high level.”

DU has been a traditional outlet for Norwegian skiers for decades. Although there are several quality schools in the northeast that boast top-flight ski programs that would allow Norwegian skiers to shave a good chunk of time from their commutes home, none of them combines the rich tradition of a DU program that has won 21 NCAA national championships in skiing with the allure of consistent training in the Rocky Mountains.

With an exhaustive list of national championships, both individual and team, in addition to a storied tradition of sending skiers to the Olympics, the opportunity available to skiers in Denver far outweighs the extended mileage away from home.

“Part of it is a lot to do with the tradition,” says Leif Kristian Haugen, who represented Norway in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver before winning the 2010 national championship in the giant slalom and leading the Pioneers to the NCAA title. “The other part is it is close to these great mountains where there is always snow. And obviously the program is great in terms of history. The University of Denver, especially the ski program, has a great reputation in Norway.”

The Norwegian pipeline has produced some of DU’s most notable skiers. Otto Tschudi, a 1975 DU graduate and five-time national champion for the Pioneers, put together an impressive resume after leaving Norway, eventually serving on the DU Board of Trustees and getting elected to the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2009. Skier Jon Terge Overland, who was elected to DU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, competed on two Norwegian Olympic teams in the 1960s while winning several NCAA championships for the Pioneers. Peder Pytte was an All-American skier for DU in the 1950s and Peik Christiansen was an All-American skier for DU in the mid-1970s. Odd Hammersnes won seven letters at DU — four in skiing and three in soccer — and was DU’s 1972 athlete of the year. More recently, Annette Aksdal starred on the women’s tennis team and Espen Kofstad was one of one DU’s most accomplished collegiate golfers.

Current DU athletes that have made the commute from Norway include skiers Trygve Markset, Kristian Soerlund and Mari Elden; women’s golfer Tonje Daffinrud; and men’s golfer Ole Ramsnes.

One allure, naturally, is the weather, where Denver’s average of about 300 days of sunshine per year far exceeds the sort of environment most Norwegians are accustomed to. The relative laid-back culture in Denver echoes a European atmosphere more so than most major American cities, and many Norwegian athletes have been attracted to the University’s acclaimed Daniels College of Business.

Mix into the equation that the Norwegian population at DU is large enough for such athletes to get together and share a little bit of their own culture while simultaneously exploring a foreign culture — a perk that often helps stave off homesickness.

“I first heard about DU from former DU golf team player Espen Kofstad,” says Ramsnes. “He graduated the year before I started. He recommended both the golf program and academics, which inspired me to contact DU. After communicating with coach [Eric] Hoos, former assistant coach Barrett Lais, and Espen Kofstad, I decided DU was the place for me. The size and skill of the team, the strong business program, and the coaches were the most important factors.

“I didn’t know about all the Norwegian athletes before I came to DU, so for me that did not influence my decision at all. But the Norwegian athletes definitively stick together. It’s a social group that is very welcoming and friendly towards freshmen. It is definitively a fun group to be part of.”

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