By Gaurav Mokhasi | For Virtus: World Intellectual Impairment Sport
Norway’s Virtus: World Intellectual Impairment Sport world record holding pole vaulter Bjorn Oivind Berger aims to fly high once more at the 2019 Global Games in Brisbane, Australia.
In May Berger broke his own Virtus: World Intellectual Impairment Sport world record at the World Intellectual Impairment Sport Indoor Athletics Championships in Val de Reuil, France, setting the bar at 4.75m.
Describing his goals for the 2019 Global Games, Berger revealed he is not only targeting another world record but a medal in another event.
“My goal is to jump higher than I do now. I want to win the pole vault competition, beat my own world record again, and get a medal in high jump or long jump too,” he said.
Berger lives in Finnsnes, a small town in Northern Norway, that is located 500km north of the centre of the Arctic Circle. Winter there lasts for seven months. Nights often stretch past 24 hours, and the cold is biting.
The summer is the other extreme, with the sun shining right through midnight for days on end. The nearest indoor training facilities for athletics are situated 1000km away in Norway or 650km away in Sweden.
IL Pioner Friidrett, the athletics club that Berger has been training at since the last 11 years, lacks the funds needed to build an indoor training facility dedicated to athletics, so Berger trains outdoors from May to October.
In winters, the heavy snow and frigid temperatures mean that he has to train in an indoor football hall. But Berger is grateful. “The people at Pioner support me a lot,” he said. “They help me (Team Berger) find sponsors, both through companies and individuals. They also try to maintain good training facilities as far as possible. We live quite far north, so travelling to competitions both in Norway and abroad is very expensive. The Troms Athletic Association also helps me economically sometimes.”
For a top athlete, Berger keeps his training regimen simple. “I exercise every day. I don’t have any special diet. I eat normal, Norwegian homely fare. I never use protein powder or anything like that. The only supplement I take is cod liver oil in winter.”
Ulrike Naumann, who heads IL Pioner Friidrett, mentions other challenges for Berger.
“Most other athletes in our club are younger than Bjorn,” she said. “Kids leave the region after high school for further education, so there is nobody else at Bjorn’s age left. I think that’s a bit of a pity for him. I wish we could create some more possibilities for him to exercise and compete in other places in Norway, but it is difficult for such a little club to do this; it is too expensive. It is not easy to get the state athletics organisation to financially support disabled sportspeople.”
Naumann ensures that Berger is able to train twice a week with Pioner’s twenty other members. These comprise of athletes aged 4 to 71 and three of Naumann’s own children.
Berger’s father, Oivind, plays a major role in his development and coaches the younger athletes at Pioner too. “My father is my coach, and with me at exercises and competitions. He always travels with me,” Berger said. “My mother was also involved in my athletics from the beginning. So, both my parents support me a lot. Neither of them knew anything about pole vault, but they learned it for my sake.”
Berger discovered his love for sports early in life. “I began playing football and did gymnastics when I was eight. Then I started with athletics. Pole vault is my favourite, but I like long jump, high jump and discus too. When I was 15, I got a result of 3.75m in pole vault. That’s when I realised I could be a good pole-vaulter.”
But growing up was not easy for Berger due to his intellectual impairment. “There was some bullying at school, and I struggled a bit at that time,” he said. “But it is okay, I never tried to be something else. When I was 17, I became Norwegian champion for pole vault in my age group, competing against people without any disabilities. I am proud of that.”
‘Life is okay’
Berger has since gone from strength to strength. He first became the Virtus: World Intellectual Impairment Sport world record holder in pole vault at the 2017 World Intellectual Impairment Sport European Championships in Prague, an achievement that he still ranks as the biggest of his career. “I jumped 4.71m. That was awesome,” Berger said.
Amidst all his success, Berger remains grounded. He views sports as just one aspect of his life, albeit an important one. “Playing sports is important for my social life too. It lets me make friends and talk to people. When I’m not playing, I like to relax, listen to music and watch films. I work in a little company nearby my home when I don’t have training or competitions”, he said, before adding with a smile. “Life is okay.”
Inputs and translation provided by Ulrike Naumann.