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Norway’s cross-country prodigy has a coaching secret: ‘He is my grandpa.’

Norway's Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo skis toward one of his two gold medals at the PyeongChang Games — so far. (Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)
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DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — Here comes maybe the most remarkable coach at the Olympics, ascending the grandstand at the cross-country skiing venue, avoiding a clogged aisle by stepping over the seats. He makes the necessary looping strides with such athletic ease that a witnessing eye doubts itself because of the shouting presence of one outstanding fact. He is 75, even if he does move like 25.

Kare Hoesflot’s remarkableness clearly has not occurred to him, even as he coaches a blazing star of a 21-year-old cross-country phenom, a fresh two-time gold medalist, and even as Kare remains that rare coach of whom a daughter, in this case Elisabeth, can say, “When he became a pensionary, how many years ago . . .”

“Three and a half,” her father said.

“After that, he could use more time together with Johannes. He would be together with him at his training during the day.”

In truth, he has coached Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo pretty much since the family abided by Norwegian law and got the kid skis at age 2 — okay, it’s not technically Norwegian law — and the lad began scrambling around the terrain without one scintilla of hesitation. While sports on this particular planet have seen bushels of parents coaching their offspring (to results good and bad), and spouses coaching their spouses (to results good and bad), and an uncle coaching Rafael Nadal (to results good), a careful observer of global sports might not be able to recollect any case of a major athlete coached by a grandparent.

It is the distinctive role of the human grandparent, after all, to supply the extra cookie that drives the cookie total over the line, a custom antithetical to coaching. The grandparent, in multiple known cases, tends to permit a certain fuzziness on the issue of bedtime, a custom antithetical to coaching. The grandparent has the further responsibility of instilling within the grandchild the concept that the grandchild is the adored center of the known universe.

That’s a custom antithetical to coaching.

Is Kare Hoesflot some flagrant exception, some stern, dreadful drill sergeant of a coach?

“Actually, no,” his grandson said. “It’s like, I think he’s just trying to be a little bit more smart. He’s trying to focus on what we can do to just get better and to get faster on the skis, and I think it’s more of [being] a smarter trainer than very tough. It’s like, when I say something, he’s just trying to be able to look at how I see it and to figure out how we should do things, and I think he’s doing a great job there.”

Thirty-six minutes after the gold medal was won, the Olympics happened

Yeah, anyone who would quibble with that job is pretty much a doofus at this point. With Hoesflot Klaebo’s life clock still dawdling toward age 22 in March, he is widely reported to be the talk of Norway, that Winter Olympics empire with the runaway medal lead pried from an unpopulous population.

On the first Tuesday of the Olympics, he won the men’s sprint classic, and as he crossed, the meaning proved so indescribable that Kare Hoesflot rummaged around his head trying to find the words, whereupon Elisabeth Hoesflot said, “It’s hard enough in Norwegian!” On Sunday, Hoesflot Klaebo anchored the men’s 4x10-kilometer relay and wreaked an involuntary gasp from the untrained.

When teammate Simen Hegstad Krueger touched Hoesflot Klaebo’s right shoulder, indicating the transition from the third leg to the fourth, the Norwegian procession had gone from a 26-year-old to a 33-year-old to a 24-year-old to a 21-year-old, and the wunderkind set off on his first major relay. It bamboozled him not. He spent a good while in the close company of the Russian Denis Spitsov, a couple of 21-year-olds out in the woods.

Cross-country cognoscenti say they have never seen anyone put the hammer down like Hoesflot Klaebo puts the hammer down, and when he put the hammer down just more than one kilometer from the finish, he spoke neither Norwegian nor English, but the international language that translates into I-am-going-to-kick-your-tail-right-now. While noting a deep Norwegian team that has “people back at the hotel who could have run this relay also,” he concluded, “It’s quite cool.” While telling how he “got a gap and just tried to keep it up” until he took a Norwegian flag toward the finish line, which he similarly deemed, “quite cool.”

He had been a wee wisp of a child, smaller than some younger kids, all the way to age 15 or so, his mother said. While waiting to grow, he made a careful study of technique, his mother said, all while playing both soccer and cross-country before opting hard for the latter. By age 17, he confessed to his longtime ski partner and coach and grandfather — all three wrapped into one person — that he wished to be the best cross-country skier in the world.

Asked how he responded to that, his grandfather replied with a grandfather’s bark that might ring familiar to many humans.

“‘Ahhhhhhh!’” he recalled himself scoffing.

And: “Then you have a lot of hard work!”

Every four years, they come from Norway to plunder your gold

At the 63rd parallel inNorway’s third-largest city, Trondheim, the grandson’s family and the grandparents live almost four miles and about 15 minutes apart, with the training center tucked niftily between the two. For most of his adult life, Kare Hoesflot had been both a heating and ventilation engineer and a coach, the latter ever since sometime in life he can’t pinpoint. He coached “a regional team in the middle of Norway, and he had the seniors [adults] there, and the juniors also,” Elisabeth Hoesflot said, whereupon her father chimed in, “I started back in the 1970s, 1980, or something like that,” he said.

Count him among the thousands of the world’s coaches who know how to coach but coach anonymously. As grandfather and grandson climbed toward the Olympic clouds horrid upslope by horrid upslope in their country’s all-the-rage sport, even in-the-know journalists were unfamiliar with Kare Hoesflot, said Oeyvind Goode of the newspaper Dagbladet. Quietly around Trondheim, a grandparent-grandson relationship persisted in its unstoppable blossom.

For one thing, the lad needs no prodding to go to work: “From when he was a kid, we had to put a brake on him: ‘That’s enough, you don’t have to train more,’” Elisabeth Hoesflot said. For another, they pretty much can communicate with or without speaking: “We understand each other very well, all the time,” Kare Hoesflot said. For another, the two are, of course, like-minded: “If it’s necessary, Johannes is pretty sure what he’s going to do himself, but they discuss a lot, and they pretty much agree for whatever.”

“I do the program, the training program, and then we discuss a lot,” the coach said.

“But Johannes is not that guy who just gets a program and does what it says,” Elisabeth Hoesflot said. “He always feels what he’s going to do. If it’s right, he feels it in the body, if it’s not right, ‘No, my body’s not like that today,’ so he’ll do something else. And they change.”

Question: “Are you tough?”

Coach: “Not really.”

Both coach and mother laugh.

Question: “Do you ever argue?”

Coach: “Sometimes.”

Question: “Once a year?”

Both coach and mother laugh.

“I think sometimes” they quibble, Elisabeth Hoesflot said, “but not like fighting.”

“Almost,” Kare Hoesflot said. “It’s not fighting. He will tell me what he thinks, and then we discuss it, finds the best solutions. Not an argument, no, no.”

Question: Does proverbial spoiling go on?

Coach: “A little bit.”

Mother: “They have been normal grandparents all the time, but he has been his trainer, and they’ve spent a lot of time together, so I think they have a closer relationship than most people have with their grandparents, but he’s also close with the other children that he’s a grandfather to,” that number totaling five.

The sprawling PyeongChang Games: best viewed from a seat on the bus

They’re always on the phone. They meet at the training center. “And the last two years,” Elisabeth Hoesflot said, “the hard work, when Johannes does this, the interval, this hard training, and [Kare] can be there and see if the technique is right, and push him, and take his clothes, and take the time.” The hours have tallied up to untold.

“My grandfather means everything to me,” Hoesflot Klaebo told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten in 2016.

“I think it isn’t any different between [Kare as] a person and a coach,” the gold medalist said Sunday. “I think he is my grandpa, and in the end, I feel like everything we are doing and talking about is, like, he is my grandpa. Sometimes, of course, we’re trying to speak a little bit more of what we’re doing in training. And every time we speak and every time we’re with each other, it’s always coming back with this topic, skiing. So I think it is just very cool to be able to have this [rapport] with your grandpa like this, and I think he’s doing a very good job.”

So even among the coach-athlete rapports strewn around South Korea these days, this particular rapport does tower. You might call it quite cool that the world got to see 21-year-old Hoesflot Klaebo put the hammer down. It’s just a shame not everyone got to see Kare Hoesflot climb that grandstand.

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