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Three Skiers & A Baby Will Re-Enact 800-Year-Old Birkebeiner Legend

Tue, Nov  6, 2007 - By Leslie Hamp

HAYWARD, Wis., December 4, 2007 – The search for three cross country skiers and a baby to re-enact the 800-year-old legend that inspired the creation of the American Birkebeiner 51-kilometer cross country ski race from Cable to Hayward, Wis. is over.

During the 35th anniversary on Saturday, February 23, 2008, brothers Thom and Gary Gerst will assume the roles of Torstein and Skervald, the Birkebeiner warriors who rescued Prince Haakon (Hō-ken) during the Norwegian Civil War in 1206.

The two Viking warriors, called “Birkebeiners” for the protective birch bark leggings they wore, skied more than 50 kilometers through rugged mountains and forested terrain smuggling the infant son of King Syverresson and Inga of Vartieg from Lillehammer to safety in the town of Trondheim.

The rescued prince became one of the most popular kings in Norwegian history, and the Birkebeiner soldiers became a Norwegian symbol of courage, perseverance and character in the face of adversity.

Gail Moede Rogall will dress as Inga from Varteig, mother of Prince Haakon, while her 8-month-old son Bjorne will assume the role of the cherished prince.

Gail’s clothing – a long, black wool jumper, traditional Norwegian sweater, and headgear of the era – will complement the Gersts’ authentic gear which includes birch bark leggings, wood skis, and weapons from the year 1206.

Rogall will ski the Kortelopet course, and the Gersts will ski the Birkebeiner course. The three will meet up on Main Street in Hayward where the warriors will exchange the baby doll they’ve been carrying for 51 kilometers for Bjorne, the prince for the day.

With the live baby swaddled to Torstein’s side, the warriors and Inga will ski the final two blocks to the finish line as hundreds of spectators ring bells and cheer the rescuers on.

Thom also known as (aka) Torstein, Gary aka Skervald and Gail aka Inga were selected to re-enact the escape and rescue by Jim and Tom Vanden Brook and Phillip and Michael Schaefer, skiers who have also re-enacted the historic event.

The former warriors said their selection was based on passion for the event, ability to represent the historic race roots and perseverance to ski the distance in historic attire.

“We didn’t expect so many high-quality entries,” said Ned Zuelsdorff, Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF). “Thirty skiers, men and women, submitted creative, inspiring and persuasive essays pitching their skills, passion and background as the perfect candidates to serve as the 2008 Birkebeiner warriors and Inga. It was a difficult decision.”

The three finalists, all from Norwegian ancestry with blond hair, blue eyes and skiing in their blood, said they decided to enter the competition because of their love for cross country skiing and the positive influence the Birkebeiner race has had on their lives.

Gary, a biology teacher and cross country ski coach at Maple Grove High School outside Minneapolis, has skied 27 Birkebeiners; Thom, a family practice physician in the Twin Cities area has skied 17; and Gail, an outreach coordinator at the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, has skied seven Birkebeiners and one Kortelopet.

They say showing up on race day with pine-tarred skis, attire representing the era, and enthusiasm to boot will be a snap.

“They’ll not only re-enact the historic rescue, they’ll inspire 7,000 other skiers, 2,000 volunteers and 15,000 spectators from around the world,” Zuelsdorff said. “It will be a highlight and great way to commemorate the 35th anniversary.”

Come race day, the Birkie 2008 warriors and Inga will leave the start gates with the elite skiers. More than 7,000 other skiers will follow every five minutes in alternating skating and classic wave starts. The warriors and Inga expect to see the majority of those skiers at one time or another throughout the day.