Taking a leap of faith
Erling Stordahl’s vision for Norway’s Ridderrenn set the course for what’s possible
Jo Christian Weldingh
Ridderrennet, or the Knight’s Race, is a 12.4-mile cross-country skiing race for visually and mobility impaired. The race is held in Beitostølen, Norway, at the end of March each year, as part of the international Ridderuka (Knight’s week). The race is the world’s biggest winter sporting event for people with disabilities. This year, it will take place March 22-29 for the 57th time since its beginning in 1964.
Ridderrennet’s visions and core values are to showcase that, no matter your disability, everything is possible. The organization aspires to teach each participant to see opportunities instead of barriers.
The race got its name from “Ridderspranget” (Knight’s leap), both a real place and a piece of Norwegian folklore that tells the tale of how the knight Sigvat was able to leap over an impossibly big gorge on horseback.
Ridderrennet was founded by Erling Stordahl (1923–1994), an accomplished Norwegian musician, sports activist, and farmer. The visionary Stordahl became a pioneer in the field of social integration of people with disabilities.
Stordahl was born with a visual impairment and became fully blind at the age of 13. A musical talent, he was voted Norwegian accordion champion at age 15.
In 1953, he married Anna Berget Windingstad (1917-1995), and together, they built their home Bamseli in Beitostølen, Valdres.
In 1962, Stordahl started organizing skiing lessons for the blind, and soon he got the idea of organizing a full cross-country skiing race for the visually impaired, an idea that later culminated with the first version of Ridderrennet in 1964.
On how he got the idea for Ridderrennet, Stordahl writes in his autobiography: “In 1961, in conjunction with a military exercise, the Norwegian Armed Forces were driving around on tracked vehicles called Weasels in the areas surrounding Beitostølen. These vehicles left tracks that were about 6 inches deep and 16 inches wide. With my cross-country skis on, I tried one of those tracks out and experienced the adventure of being able to move around freely without the fear of knocking into anything. I felt a big sense of achievement, both physically and mentally, and my first thought was that I wanted to share this experience with my friends.”
Not only did the Norwegian Armed Forces provide Stordahl with some of the initial inspiration for Ridderrennet, they were also crucial in the organization of the first event in 1964. The head of the Norwegian Armed Forces called Stordahl’s initiative a bold leap forward in Norwegian winter sports. The Armed Forces provided, among other things, the necessary transportation, communication, and security services.
The royal family was represented by King Olav and Crown Prince Harald. The event made such an impression on them that it has been under the royal family’s protection ever since, with Queen Sonja, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, and Princess Märtha Louise among the family members who have served as guides.
For his groundbreaking work and tireless efforts for people with disabilities, Stordahl was made Commander of the Order of St. Olav in 1994, and when he died the same year, he received a state funeral.
Stordahl’s philosophy of inspiring people to find possibilities instead of barriers through sports and cross-country skiing has spread far beyond Norway’s borders. In 1975, the United States founded their own version, Ski for Light, and China recently founded their own version of the event.
Stordahl writes in his autobiography: “Today, in my 34th year, I can honestly say that my handicap has been an advantage. I’m convinced that the loss of my eyesight has given my life a deeper meaning and a bigger, richer feeling of fulfillment than it would have had otherwise. Why did it end up that way? First and foremost, I think it’s because I have tried to see my handicap as a study, something to learn from.”
This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.