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giving his all
E.M. Swift
December 19, 1994
Johann Olav Koss set the standard in something even more important than Olympic speed skating—generosity of spirit
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December 19, 1994

Giving His All

Johann Olav Koss set the standard in something even more important than Olympic speed skating—generosity of spirit

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Koss was eager to help. As a boy he had visited India, Nepal and Egypt with his family, so he wasn't a stranger to Third World countries. "We are not wealthy, but we have always had enough," says his mother, Karen Sofia, an obstetrician-gynecologist. "A house, food, clothes, money to take trips. We wanted to show Johann and his brothers [Hamf Christian, 24, and Haakon, 20] someplace other than a rich country. Johann was 12 when we went to Egypt, and I think he was shocked. I remember being on a poor street in Cairo, and Johann telling me, 'Oh, Mother, we are happy, and we are rich.' "

Koss never forgot the trip, never forgot the feeling of watching barefoot boys his own age begging in the street. So when, in September 1993, five months before the Olympics, Save the Children invited him to visit Eritrea for a week to see the school rebuilding that the organization was doing, Koss wanted to go. He consulted the national coach, Hans-Trygve Kristiansen. Koss's training had not been going particularly well, and skater and coach agreed that the trip wasn't a bad idea. "I told him I thought it would be good for him," Kristiansen says. "Go to another country and see what problems can be."

"It was a very special trip for me," Koss says. "You focus only on yourself when you are training. Tenths of seconds. Problems with your toe. With your leg. Your skates do not feel perfect, and you're mad. The training is boring. You wonder if the world is against you. This is normal, to think this way. Then you visit a place like Eritrea, and you play football with a boy who has one leg, with a ball made out of shirts that are tied together. I saw how lucky I was that I could train eight hours a day. And I felt the importance of sport, how it could bring people together. I didn't complain so much after that."

Koss was a natural with the Eritrean kids, who, once they overcame their shyness, would clamber over this friendly, powerful Olympian as though he were some sort of human jungle gym. Koss would stick his arms straight out for kids to hang on and do chin-ups. Three or four at a time would latch on...hitch on, follow me...and he would see how far he could carry them until his arms dropped. There were no barbells or weights around for his training sessions, so Koss dug through a garage and found a long iron bar, which he hung with heavy metal hubs and cogwheels that, he thinks, came from a disassembled tank. The children giggled and laughed and mimicked him as he did his squats. When he practiced his explosive jumps, crouching into a speed skating stance then bouncing side to side, from one leg to the other, the entire building shook as some 200 malnourished, barefoot children gleefully did the same. "Sometimes the poorest people have the richest spirit," he says.

That spirit suffused Koss. He promised the Eritrean children that he would come back after the Olympics with sports equipment. After returning to Norway he carried the faces of those children within him, much as he did the face of the blind boy, Aud Martin. His workouts took on a new fervor, "it made him free," says Sletten. "He just decided to be the best skater he could be. Forget gold, silver, bronze. There are people suffering around the world. This is ordinary, what he's doing. Whatever happens, the world goes on."

In December, in a World Cup event in the Vikingskipet arena, Koss won at all three distances, setting a world record in the 5,000. He was stronger than he had ever been in his life. He was confident. His world had depth and dimension. Then in January, for some reason that even today he can't fathom, Koss's skates refused to glide.

Something similar had happened in 1992, and Koss said nothing about it that year. Then after the '92 season, when it was discovered that his skate blades were set at the wrong angle by the factory, he swore it would never happen again. "In speed skating very little change can make a dramatic difference," Koss says.

His coaches were skeptical. After all, he had set a world record in December. How off could his skate blades now be? But Koss was adamant, and on Jan. 24 he took his skates back to the Netherlands, where the blades had been made, got new ones and had them reset. They still didn't feel right. Two weeks before the Olympics they were changed at the factory again. Still no improvement. A week before the Lillehammer Games, Koss returned to the Netherlands a third time to have his blades recalibrated. "They were still wrong," he says now. "My coaches didn't believe me. They thought I was mentally off. They said, Just skate. But two days before the 5,000 I took my skates to a Norwegian guy, Frode Eidsmo, and he agreed they were wrong. He changed the position of the blades a couple of times. Just 24 hours before the 5,000 we finally got it right. But I can tell you, that makes you very uncertain when you stand at the starting line."

Koss had no idea how he would do. Neither did Kristiansen, the national team coach, who was unsure whether he had a head case on his hands or a temperamental genius. "I was worried." Kristiansen says. "His knee problems were real, and his results in January were not good. But that put him in a good frame of mind mentally, an attacking frame of mind. We didn't set a time to go for. We just tried to go as fast as possible."

One stroke at a time. Koss later said he had never felt such inner strength as he did when he took the ice for the 5,000. Some 12,000 bundled spectators, most of them winter-loving Norwegians waving their nation's flag, created an electric atmosphere inside the Vikingskipet. They knew the significance of the splits the moment the timing clocks flashed them, and as it became clear that Koss was on a pace that was close to his world record, the noise of the crowd rose ever higher, carrying him through the last three laps: "Jo-hann! Jo-hann! Jo-hann!" The sound seemed to follow him around the track like a wave. He skated his final lap in 32.01, nearly .3 of a second faster than he had ever skated the last lap of a 5,000 before, and finished .57 under the record. The second-place skater, Norway's Kjell Storelid, was 7.72 seconds behind him. It was the largest margin of victory in an Olympic 5,000 in 34 years, and it gave Norway its first gold medal of the Lillehammer Games.

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