If you’re surprised by the recent dominance of Norwegian triathletes, you haven’t been paying attention. In our November/December 2019 issue, we covered the ascent of Norway – particularly, Olympic gold medalist Kristian Blummenfelt’s hometown of Bergen – as a triathlon superpower. (Spoiler alert: the story ends with Blummenfelt gutting it out in Tokyo to win one of the most memorable races in triathlon history, then going on to set an Ironman world record time in Cozumel.)
Nestled in the fjords of Norway’s western coast in the shadows of the Seven Mountains, the city of Bergen is known for its postcard-perfect coastline, winding cobblestone streets, a buzzing fish market, and intricate architecture dating back to the 14th century. And, as of the past couple of years, it’s also known for producing some of the fastest triathletes in the world: Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden, and Casper Stornes. Three of the biggest names in the sport right now all call Bergen home. In fact, both Blummenfelt, 25, and Iden, 23, grew up in the city, attending high school together. The trio, along with a cache of up-and-comers training in their shadows, have formed one of the most dominating national squads the sport has seen. In April 2018, jaws dropped when Norway swept the podium at the Bermuda ITU World Triathlon Series—the first time in history that one country claimed the top three spots in a major race. The shock and awe continued in August when Blummenfelt captured the ITU World Final title in Lausanne, Switzerland, followed by Iden’s convincing (and surprising, to many) win at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Nice, France, just one week later—on a road bike, no less.
All this coming from a country that never even had a single triathlete participate in the Olympics until Blummenfelt qualified in 2016 (he finished 13th). And now, with the 2020 Games just months away, the Norway crew has been tapped as medal favorites. The trajectory, to say the least, has been swift—and profound, which begs the question: What the heck is in Bergen’s water?
On any given day, you’ll find Arild Tveiten standing poolside at Bergen’s sprawling aquatic center, or hovering by a group of athletes hunched over trainers sweating it out in a studio. (Given Bergen’s wet climate—it rains some 200 days of the year there— much of the squad’s training is in- doors). The Oslo native and former elite triathlete took the helm of the national squad some eight years ago, back when there wasn’t much of a squad to speak of.The story goes that sometime around 2010, at the suggestion of the Norwegian government, Tveiten led a charge to establish a junior development pro- gram in Norway. He hosted a camp for about 20 kids ranging in age from 14 to 16, plucked from various running, cycling, and swimming teams from around the country. From that group, he selected a dozen of the most promising athletes to form a national team, but Tveiten admits he wasn’t blown away by the talent. After all, in a country rooted in winter sports like cross-country skiing and speed skating, triathlon is hardly a dominant activity among Norwegian youth.
“I would say that maybe of the 12 athletes we selected, one or two of them would have met the selection criteria from other so-called ‘good’ triathlon countries,” says Tveiten, 48. “But that was what we had to work with. From there, we started building a team, step by step.”Still, the potential was there. Blummenfelt, Iden, and eventual world junior bronze medalist Lotte Miller, now 23, were part of that initial team, and a year later, Stornes, now 22, came aboard. Tveiten quit his job to take on the development of the national team full-time, despite having little background in coaching.“We made mistakes in the beginning, and it took time for it to all come together,” he says. “But we were able to figure out the best methods to develop athletes and create an environment where the team is able to train together under good guidance. That is mostly the reason for our success.” Indeed, the Norwegian national team– particularly on the men’s side–is tight. They may be one another’s fiercest competitors on course, but they’re also good friends. It’s not like they have much choice: The way the program is structured, they must spend the majority of their days together in Bergen, where Tveiten can carefully control the intensity of his athletes’ efforts. For at least two months of the year, the team heads high into the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain for an altitude camp. There, they all stay in one chalet and take turns cooking and cleaning.
Blummenfelt, the de facto team captain of the squad, says this bond is a main ingredient in Norway’s secret sauce. He calls their living and training environment a dream situation that has fostered a foundation of support that’s unique in a sport typically tailored to the individual. Not only do the Norwegians rely on finely-tuned team tactics in the draft-legal style of ITU racing, but this strong sense of familiarity allows them to push one another. For example, when the Norwegians positioned themselves in the top three spots of the Bermuda WTS race on the run, Blummenfelt recalls feeling like it was “just a normal Sunday brick session; us out there, run- ning as a pack.” It sounds a little similar to something one of two tri-dominant British brothers might say.
If the Norwegians continue their upward swing, the possibility of an Olympic medal–or three–may be very real. And that’s what’s at the forefront of the mind of every single athlete on the squad, and true to form, they’re going all in on that goal–together.“Of course, you always want to get on the top of the podium,” says Blummenfelt of his Olympic dreams. “But a silver or bronze medal can taste just as good as gold when you share it with teammates.”