US Skier in Lillehammer Finds He Left His Heart in Norway

CROSS-COUNTRY skier John Aalberg expected to be a little choked up when he marched into the opening ceremony of the Lillehammer Olympics. His chest would swell with pride not only at being an American Olympian, but also at being in Norway, his homeland.

``It will be great to ski through the Norwegian pines again, to eat some Norwegian food,'' he said, anticipating not only a reunion with his native culture, but also the chance to show family and friends here that he hasn't lost the form he learned as a member of Norway's junior Nordic skiing program. Aalberg was once a Norwegian contemporary of Vegard Ulvang, whose skiing successes have made him a national hero.

What set Aalberg on a different course was his acceptance of a cross-country skiing scholarship to the University of Utah about a decade ago. As he explains it, a word-of-mouth network has existed among the Nordic skiing communities of Norway and the United States for some time. So when Utah coach Pat Miller called the 22-year-old Oslo student, it wasn't a total surprise.

A year later, Aalberg was the National Collegiate Athletic Association's 1984 individual cross-country skiing champion. The following year he defended his title and also helped the Utes finish ninth in the NCAA's cross-country running championships.

The Americanization of Aalberg continued after his graduation with a degree in computer science. He married an American and got a job with Unisys in the Salt Lake City branch of the computer giant. After carrying a green card for a while, he applied for US citizenship. It was granted only 16 days before the 1992 Winter Olympics, where he competed for his new country.

He was the top American finisher in the four races he entered, the 10- and 50-kilometer races, the 2 x 15-km combined pursuit, and the 4 x 10-km relay.

In the individual races his highest place was 18th, but that earned the respect of his former teammates, who dominated the Nordic events in Albertville. ``They were surprised I could ski so well,'' he says. ``They were impressed that I could do that well and hold down a full-time job.''

For Ulvang and his teammates, Norway's Olympic team media guide gives ``cross-country skier'' as their common occupation.

Aalberg says his employer has been good about permitting him frequent absences to compete. When home, though, he must work his training around his job as a computer engineer. He generally practices for about an hour during his lunch break, then two more at night.

``The Norwegians don't train that much more,'' he says, ``but when they're not training, they get to relax.''

Aalberg finished 43rd among 73 entrants in the 30-km race, and took 45th in the 10-km race yesterday.

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