Norway's Johann Olav Koss, who won four Olympic gold medals in speed skating and was SI's 1994 Sportsman of the Year, reflects on the life of Norwegian marathoner Ketil Moe, who died last Friday. More than any medal or trophy I've received, I will always cherish a gift I got two years ago from Ketil Moe, my friend and sports role model. It was a piece of paper cut in the shape of his lungs. On the paper he wrote simply, "It's done." He had just had a double lung transplant.
Born with cystic fibrosis, which thickens the mucus in the lungs, Ketil spent most of his 32 years enduring physiotherapy to help him breathe. Yet in New York in 1983, against his doctors' objections, he ran a marathon. He finished the '95 New York City Marathon while I ran beside him carrying his oxygen bottle. I'll never forget how he constantly joked with me during that race and encouraged me to keep going.
Ketil kept running after his 1997 lung transplant, and he helped change the way cystic fibrosis patients are treated. Doctors had long told them to avoid strenuous exercise but began to change their approach after seeing how Ketil's running enriched his life.
In 1990 Ketil wrote a letter asking me to help him organize an outing for both handicapped and nonhandicapped people. It was what we call in Norwegian a mosjonsl�p, meaning roughly go as you can. We would go on to hold seven such events for more than 2,000 people. There was never a clock along the course—these mosjonsl�ps were measured not by distance or time, but by spirit. Everyone received the same medal and a hug from Ketil and me at the finish line.
Just before my most important race at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, the 1,500 meters, Ketil was stricken by one of his numerous lung infections. He arranged for Odd Martin, a blind friend of his, to attend the Games in his place and cheer me. But when the day arrived Ketil had rallied, and he was there with Odd to inspire me to victory. "Johann, you can do it. We believe in you," he said. "Do it for the less fortunate in the world!" I wanted to show him anything was possible, just as he had shown me.
Last week Ketil died on his way home from the New York City Marathon. He had run 14 more marathons, lived at least 20 more years and enriched countless more lives than anyone had ever told him he could.
I'm in my last semester of medical studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, preparing for my final exams, but I am at a loss for answers this week. I wonder how medicine could ever explain a heart such as Ketil's.
It's done, my friend. Rest in peace.
Gasping for Air