Like many Norwegians, he learned to ski when he was three. He was a big, determined kid who giggled a lot. His brother, Simen, came along a couple of years later, and during wintertime the little boys loved to strap on nordic skis and scoot around the garden. When they were a little older, the brothers would go to their grandparents’ hytte in the big mountains near Geilo.
Alpine skiing ran deep in the family. Bjorn was solid enough on skis to become an instructor, but it was Aksel’s mother, Ina Lund, who had the real gift. She’d skied on the Norwegian national team and even raced in Europe for a few seasons.
In 1990, when Aksel was eight years old, Ina went to the hospital to deliver her and Bjorn’s third child. But something went wrong during the delivery, and she started to hemorrhage. The doctors couldn’t get Ina’s blood to coagulate. She died the next day. The infant—a boy—was saved, but after 18 months languishing on respirators and other machines, he too died.
As a balm for the family’s raw grief, the Svindals made for the mountains every weekend and threw themselves into skiing. “It kept us together,” Bjorn says. “I think skiing saved us.”
Aksel and Simen proved to be prodigies. When he was 16, Aksel was invited to Norway’s elite ski academy at Oppdal, and he began to spend more time racing in Europe. He qualified for his first World Cup race in 2001. Simen’s skiing took off, too. But while training in Oppdal in 2007, he suffered a terrible fall going off a jump and broke his back in six places. Though at first the doctors thought he might have to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair, he recovered—but was forced to give up racing forever. Aksel would now shoulder the family’s skiing dreams.
When it comes to ski racing, Norway has long been known for doing a lot with a little. Although the country’s nordic-skiing program is formidable, its alpine counterpart is almost laughably tiny and underfunded—a pale shadow of the high-tech juggernauts that exist, say, in Austria and Switzerland. Yet Norway has produced some of the all-time greats in alpine skiing. Svindal was lucky enough to come up through the ranks at a time when two of them—Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Aamodt—were just beginning to peak. Both had been childhood idols of Svindal’s, both were decorated all-arounders, and he consciously tried to emulate them.
“If you want to understand where Aksel comes from, look to those guys,” says Tim Layden, who has covered alpine ski racing for Sports Illustrated for 15 years. “Kjus and Aamodt were bulletproof—tremendous competitors under pressure. But you never heard anything negative said about them. There was just a universal respect and affection. And Aksel was the junior skier watching them—like Kobe grew up watching Jordan.”
Svindal’s first breakthrough occurred in 2005, at Alberta’s Lake Louise, with a big victory in the super-G. From then on his star steadily rose, and at exactly the same time that Kjus and Aamodt were waning. (Kjus retired in 2006, Aamodt a year later.) It was perfect kismet, both for Svindal and for Norway. “There was a big question who was going to take over the throne, or whether there was even going to be anyone else,” says Kjetil Jansrud, Svindal’s teammate and close friend. “But he came along at just the right moment. He lifted the pressure off of them and put it all on his shoulders. He inherited the kingdom.”