For the first time, the Portuguese Orienteering Blog meets Oskar Sandberg, one of the most prominent junior MTB orienteers of all times. His three gold medals so far show not only the athlete's value, but also the excellent work that Sweden has been developing in recent years in MTB Orienteering. On a trip to his past as an athlete, Oskar tells us something else about a still short but extraordinarily successful career and designs some ambitious goals for his last season as a Junior.
When, two years ago, Cecilia Thomasson took the Sprint gold in the World MTBO Championships, most of people saw it as a fluke. The time took charge to prove the contrary and, in the last three years, we are seeing a “glorious revolution”. Sweden is now a well-known and respected country in MTBO and one of the names connected to this “revolution” is yours. How did it happen?
Oskar Sandberg (O. S.) - I wouldn’t say it was a fluke and, as you say, she has shown that she can do it again. The sport has grown enormously during the last years in Sweden and, of course, the number of athletes is one of the reasons why we start now getting results. Cecilia is our front-figure in Sweden and her success has given more media attention to the discipline. Success breeds success.
How did you know Orienteering and, particularly, MTB Orienteering?
O. S. - I came in contact with MTBO for the first time in 2011, and I would say this was probably the year when this so called “revolution” started. I have seen the number of Swedish riders increasing during the last years and the results have followed with them. I have always been running orienteering and was born into an orienteering family. I ran my first competition when I was six years old and I have always found it the most enjoyable sport on earth. I have also been competing in Ski-O since I was really young, so MTBO is the discipline I came in contact with last. When I went my first ride in 2011 I didn’t knew much about the sport. I saw an invitation to O-ringen MTBO just some weeks before, and thought it could be fun to try.
Could you talk about the first rides? Was there a particularly important moment in the beginning, for the best or for the worst, decisive in your choice?
O. S. - The first rides were even more fun than I had expected. Even though I had not practiced it before, it felt familiar to me. You need the same technical ability to choose route choices in Ski-O. I also had big advantage of having competed in ordinary Cross Country biking, which I began to do when I was 10. I remember the MTBO races as very short, but actually they were almost one hour each. Time flies when you’re having fun. I also remember O-ringen as a really tough week, both running orienteering five mornings and riding MTBO three afternoons. I rode some more races during the autumn that year and decided to combine all three orienteering disciplines the following seasons, a decision I didn’t regret.
Have you someone who was crucial in your MTBO career so far? Do you still keep his/her best advice?
O. S. - I have no special person who has been crucial, but I have taken some good advices from different persons. When I went to my first international Championships in Poland 2013, the sport was kind of new to me. I could count my number of previous rides on my fingers, and I was only there to see and learn. The result got way much better than expected, but I was still there to learn. After the Championships I realized some of my strong and weak sides. It’s much easier to develop as an athlete if you always know your weakest link. In my case I have been in front according to navigation skills, but is still way behind the fastest bikers on small and stony tracks. This is something I try to improve. I have got a lot of advice from riders in the national team about my riding technique.
Would you like to tell me about your group/club? How do you manage your trainings and competitions?
O. S. - I live in a region where many clubs have great MTBO activity. There are 4-5 clubs with an ambition to organize good training and competition opportunities. I’m riding for one of those clubs, and we are going to organize the Swedish Championships this year. Also, the school where I study is the only school in Sweden with an MTBO education. There, our trainer organizes at least one MTBO training every week. The number of opportunities to practise MTBO has increased, and I think the sport has been more respected by other orienteers in Sweden since the riders in the national team have reached successes. It’s the Swedish Orienteering Federation that sets the main program of events each season, and put all work of the clubs together.
By the way, who are you? You're a student, I believe, and to share the time between the studies and Orienteering is, for sure, everything but easy. But I'm sure that Portuguese Orienteering Blog's readers would like to know who Oskar Sandberg is.
O. S. - Actually, the life for me as a student and orienteer is really easy right now. In some Swedish high schools you can spread out the studies at four instead of three years, which I have decided to do. I have a schedule with much space, and I can now plan my training and my studies almost whenever I want. It’s my last year at Mora Ski High School and I can choose between eight disposed trainings during school each week, running, orienteering, skiing, Ski-O and MTBO, depending on which season it is. Beyond school I can also run orienteering two times a week with the local orienteering club. The surroundings are perfect for an athlete’s life. Also, the support from teachers, school and the Swedish orienteering federation couldn’t be better.
What attracts you in MTBO? What's the most difficult part of being MTB orienteer?
O. S. - Since I have been competing in all three orienteering disciplines I can compare them and say that all have their own charm. In MTBO it’s the speed that attracts me the most. Going full speed downhill with full map control is an awesome feeling. The fact that I am competing in all disciplines also makes my training varied, which is necessary to avoid injuries but also in order to keep trainings and competitions being fun. The most difficult part for me is when the tracks get really hard to ride. I have to prior in my training to develop the most important parts in each discipline. I have chosen more physical riding in my training since the tracks in MTBO often are flat and fast. This is why I loose time when the riding becomes more technical. If I come way behind the best athletes in some of the disciplines, I will perhaps select once for all which discipline I will focus on in the future, but I hope I won’t have to make that decision.
I believe your start of the season wasn't exactly what you expected. I didn't see you in Portugal, in the European Championships (?) ...
O. S. - No, you are right, but actually it was my plan to not compete at the European Championships (7th – 14th June). It’s hard to combine three disciplines and I have to prioritize some competitions, and my biggest goal for the season was to qualify and run well at JWOC in Norway (4th – 10th July). I thought my chances of being in good shape at JWOC would be better if I did not go to Portugal. Unfortunately, I had a bad spring season without any results showing what I could, and I wasn’t one of the Swedish runners competing in Norway. I felt really disappointed and took a break for some weeks without even looking to a map. After the break I was motivated to work out and perform well again. Hopefully I will enjoy Portugal next year instead, during WMTBOC.
Three individual Junior World MTB Orienteering titles, at the age of 19, is really something. I would like to hear you about each of them.
O. S. - The first gold in the sprint distance in Poland is really special for me. I was well prepared and knew exactly what was waiting out in the forest. Technical navigation with fast and dirty tracks, it would suit me very well. The first part of the course went trough an open grass area where you had to look up and ride the shortest way between the controls. I had a good flow from the start and was always one leg ahead in my mind. I pushed hard and made a 5 seconds mistake only in the end of the course. I started early and had to wait almost one hour until my major rivals finished. The middle distance this year was totally different. According to the old map it would become a physical challenge. Steep and long slopes and distances without map reading. This is actually the opposite of what suits me well. Before the championships I was unsure about my shape and I hadn’t competed for a long time. I knew I had capacity to perform well, even thought it would be a lot of physical biking, but I didn’t see myself as favorite. I rode well in the beginning of the course and was up the guy starting 2 minutes ahead already to the first control. I felt a bit stressed about it and prefer to race without riders around me. This is also something I must be better to handle. After 10-15 minutes my flow got better and I was able to focus on my own performance. I did some good shortcuts through the forest and heard I was in the lead at the spectator’s control. The last part of the course was a little bit trickier and I did some small mistakes. When I went to the finish I was unsure about how far the race would reach.
It’s hard to reload to a race later during a championship if you have succeeded early in the week. This was my case before the long distance. I was kind of happy with my bronze and gold medal and didn’t look forward to a hot and tough race with almost 1000 meters of altitude to climb, but the Swedish head coach managed to get me on other thoughts and before the start I felt totally different. After almost one and a half hour of hard work I finished really satisfied with my performance. The course was the best I have ever ridden, and it was worth every second. I think all course setters should take a closer look to the courses from WMTBOC just to see and learn. All courses had the right character with various challenges. I will probably steal some way of thinking to my mission as course setter to next year’s Swedish championship.
Is there one gold medal more significant than the others to you? Why?
O. S. - The first gold medal in Poland is the biggest for me. Even though the Middle and Long Distance races this year were very good, the race in Poland was as close as perfect you can come. The feeling after doing such a good race and see the last competitor cross the finish line and be unable to beat my time is unbeatable. For me the result isn’t that important, I want to be satisfied with my performance, which I really was in Poland.
How do you see MTBO in the next five years? Are we going to see Sweden improving and fighting for the gold in all classes?
O. S. - I really hope so. We have some upcoming athletes but it’s hard to know. It’s an individual sport, and even though the MTBO organization in Sweden works good and the recruitment looks good, no one than yourself can decide if you will succeed. Today Sweden has taken medals in all categories except men elite class, in five years we hopefully has.
And what about you? How are you preparing the “jump” to the Elite?
O. S. - The answer is pretty easy: more and tougher training. Some of the best juniors last years have taken the step from junior to elite class good - Andreas Waldman and Cedric Beillou, for example -, and I think I am also able to do it. You need to be humble against the challenge and accept the fact that your opponents have years of advantage with good training. I will be patient doing the work that has to be done.
Have you some goals already designed to 2016?
O. S. - Junior World Championships in all three disciplines. 2016 is my last year as junior and my goal is to qualify and take at least one medal at each championship. No one has done it before, so why not be the first? I know I have the capacity to succeed with good shape and the right day. I rather aim high and fail, than achieve a goal I’m not happy with.
What's your biggest wish?
O. S. - My biggest wish is to be healthy and free from injuries the whole winter and come to the next season and say that I couldn’t have done my preparations better.
[Photo: Mårten Lång]