Norway’s top contenders headed to Tokyo
Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
They will wear the same uniforms of their country as other Olympians and have faced their own challenges. Some may wear protheses, have limited eyesight, or are missing a limb. The 15th summer Paralympic Games will run from Aug. 25 to Sept. 5 in Tokyo. Since 1988, the winter and summer games have been played in the same city as the “other” Olympics.
A record 4,328 athletes from 159 countries participated in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. Those games also marked a high in media coverage, with over 4.1 billion people in 154 countries watching almost 5,110 hours on TV. That was more than the combined hours of Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Over 1 billion people watched on digital media. The Paralympics are gaining in popularity.
In a November 2019 interview, Norwegian table tennis champ Aida Husic Dahlen, 30, said, “I have played table tennis for around 16 to 17 years. I have something called dysmelia, as you probably see. I have had it since I was born so I do not know about anything else. When I play table tennis, I don’t think about my restrictions. I think about what it takes for me to be the best I can be. I think that is also important for others with any kind of disability. One must venture without seeing one’s own limitations.”
Cato Zahl Pedersen, a former participant who heads the Para athletes at Olympiatoppen, feels the team can match its eight medals from Rio. They are putting the hopes on the shoulders of 13 athletes.
Here’s a look at the team, many of whom have unique stories.
Rowing: Birgit Skarstein (PR1 W1X)
The 32-year-old has participated in the Summer and Winter Paralympics, competing in cross-country skiing in 2018. Skarstein finished fourth in the PR1 Women’s single sculls in Rio. She earned a trip to Tokyo by winning the 2019 World Rowing Championships and also won gold at the 2017 worlds. At the 2018 worlds, she set the world record of 10:13.630.
In 2008, Skarstein injured her leg jumping into a lake in Malaysia. In the 16th operation in Norway in 2009, the epidural anesthesia injection was not done properly. She was left paralyzed from the waist down. Skarstein has overcome a number of injuries.
As if rowing and cross-country skiing weren’t enough, she was the first wheelchair contestant on Norway’s Shall We Dance TV show and finished sixth. Skarstein is on the International Paralympic Committee’s Athlete Council and was on the finance committee for the Oslo City Council.
She was named Female Para Athlete of the Year at the 2019 Norway Sports Gala, Honorary Prize of Egeberg, honoring Norwegian athletes who excel in more than one sport, and on July 24 will receive the Peer Gynt Award from the parliament for being a “positive role model on the socially beneficial level … that has made Norway’s name known abroad.”
“I believe so deeply in the value of an inclusive and generous community and that we can all do something to influence society,” she said in a press release. “Change takes time, and sometimes there is one step forward and two steps back. Then, it is incredibly nice to feel that we are many who believe that it is useful to get involved. The visibility of sports provides a good tool for showing the value of diversity. No one gets good alone, we need each other. We stand for the greatest achievements in teams, both in the sports arena and in society.”
Track: Salum Ageze Kashafali; Field: Ida Yessica Nesse
Kashafali has made a meteoric rise to become one of the world’s best sprinters. A native of the civil war-ravaged Congo, where the daily activity was scrounging for food, he came to Bergen with his family in 2004. He was 11.
Kashafali, 27, was diagnosed with the incurable congenital Stargardt’s disease at age 12. Yet, he continued to run against non-disabled athletes, winning the 60-meter Norwegian indoor championship in 2015 at age 17. His vision was worsening, as he could not see the finish line clearly. He has 5% acuity, but his sight will only get worse. Then, he suffered a hamstring injury sidelining him for 2017 and 2018.
When he returned in 2019, it was as a para athlete in the T12 class for the first time. In his first race at Nottwill, Switzerland, Kashafali set a world record in the 100m of 10.58 seconds. He lowered that to 10.45 seconds at the Bislett Games on June 13. He was selected for the Norwegian team in the European Athletics Team Championships First League, becoming only the second visually impaired athlete to qualify to compete in a major international competition with non-disabled athletes. At the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November 2019, he became a world champion, clocking a championship record of 10.54. He is the first Norwegian, para or able, to win a 100-meter world championship.
Kashafali set the world record for the visually impaired—regardless of class—of 10.44. He was Male Para Athlete of the Year in 2020. On July 1, he ran his best time of the 2021 season—10.58 at Bislett.
Ida Yessica Nesse, who appeared in her first Paralympics in 2016, will compete in the discus.
Swimming: Sarah Louise Rung, Fredrik Solberg
During back surgery in September 2008, some of Rung’s nerves were severed, resulting in a spinal cord injury, so she uses a wheelchair. Instead of quitting swimming, she moved from being a recreational swimmer to dedicating herself to compete internationally, says coach Morten Eklund. Her sister, Victoria, competes internationally with non-disabled swimmers.
Rung accounted for five of Norway’s eight medals in Rio. The 31-year-old took gold in the 100m breaststroke (1:44.94, winning by 5.64) and 200 individual medley (3:15.83 by 20.31), while also picking up a silver (50m butterfly) and two bronzes (200m freestyle, 50m backstroke). In her Paralymic debut in London in 2012, she won gold in the 200m freestyle (2:49.74) and 50m butterfly (0:41.76) and silver in 200m individual medley and 100m breaststroke.
Between the International Paralympic Committee World and European Championships in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015, Rung collected 19 gold, two silver, and one bronze medal. At the 2016 European Open she tied with Spanish rival Teresa Perales for first in 100m freestyle. In 2018, she set the world record in the 100m breaststroke.
Rung was named Athlete with an Impairment of the Year at the Norwegian Sport Gala In 2010 and 2011, and Female Athlete with an Impairment of the Year from 2012 to 2016.
Out of the pool, she is just as impressive, with a degree in civil engineering from University of Stavanger, studying clinical nutrition at the University of Bergen, and serving as a consultant to Olympiatoppen, “helping to promote and develop Para sport at national and local level in Norway.”
“The goal is to reduce the differences in sports and get more people active,” she told Toyota.no in March.
Fredrik Solberg, 19, is one of three athletes to receive a 2020 scholarship from Jysk, a yearly award for para athletes, providing resources, including housing. Solberg, who was born without a left hand, received 2019 Sportsperson of the Year Award from ReAvisa, an online publication in Norway, and the Clasens Memorial Trophy from Tønsberg Svømmeklubb in 2016.
Table tennis: Aida Husic Dahlen, Tommy Urhaug, Nora Korneliussen
Adversity? Dahlen, 30, was born in 1990 in Bosnia and Herzegovina without a left forearm and had her left leg amputated below the knee. In 1992, the Bosnian war broke out. At 6 years old, she was adopted by a Norwegian couple.
She started playing the sport when she was 12 at the suggestion of a friend. Playing internationally began in 2008 when she was 18. She has won two European championships (2015, 2017), earned silver in a world championship (2014) and European championship (2013), and bronze in a world championship (2018) and in European championship (2011 and 2017). Dahlen is the second ranked player in the world in her class (C8). She is a recipient of the Jysk scholarship.
A Paralympic medal has eluded her.
The 41-year-old Urhaug is in his sixth Olympics. He won bronze in 2008, sweeping his first two matches in straight sets, 3-0, his third, 3-2, before losing 3-2 to eventual champ Christopher Durand (France) in the semifinals. He won 3-0 in the bronze medal game. He won gold in London, sweeping his first three matches, before beating China’s Ningning Cao 3-1 in the final. In Rio, he reached the semifinal in one of the competitions.
Nora Korneliussen was added on July 3.
Badminton: Helle Sofie Sagøy
Badminton joins the sports program in Tokyo. Born without a lower right leg, Sagøy has used a prosthetic in all her 23 years. She is the only para badminton player in Norway, to face non-disabled players in the national championships.
Sagøy qualified for the Paralympics on May 16 in a qualifier in Spain, beating Mary Wilson (Scotland) 2-0 (21-5, 21-1) in the semifinals, and Haruka Fujino (Japan), who had beaten Sagøy earlier, in the final, 2-0 (21-8, 21-7). That isn’t the only excitement. On June 23, she signed a partnership agreement with the market chain, Kiwi.
“I do not want to be seen as she with the prosthesis,” she told Aftenposten in May. “I just want to be Helle Sofie.”
An important development in the last year is Sagøy moved from Oslo to Kristiansand, where the Badminton Club is the largest one in Norway. “The level of the training partners and the social conditions there have been important for Sagøy’s development,” said coach Sonja Wåland to Aftenposten. “She has developed enormously in the last year. She has never invested as professionally and seriously as she has in recent times.”
“My development over the last year is a combination of daily follow-up from my coach, good sparring partners and a good environment in the club,” said Sagøy, who was a world champion in singles and doubles in 2015 when she was 17, to Badminton World. “I will go for a medal, but it will be difficult. There are some good Asian players we have to crack the code on, but nothing is impossible.”
Equestrian: Jens Lasse Dokkan, Ann Cathrin Lübbe
Dokkan, 60, and Lübbe, 50, are the elders. Dokkan and Lübbe have participated in dressage at the Paralympics since 1996. Lübbe had a gold and silver in 2016 and has totaled one gold, four silvers and two bronzes. Dokkan’s collection: one silver and four bronzes. Dokkan has finished in the top three in all competitions from 2019 to 21 with two golds at the European Championships and is ranked fifth in the world.
This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.