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The Farmer Bounces Back
Norwegian single-sculler Olaf Tufte began August of 2012 on a low note, finishing third in the “B” final at the Olympic games – ninth overall. He returned to the family farm at Nykirke angry at his performance.

Dark days are followed by steady improvement. Renewed training, new business ventures, plans to row at Head of the Charles in the Great Eight, and aiming toward a rowing tour of Oregon help to lift him out of his funk. Better yet are the excellent meals prepared by his wife Aina, clowning around with his children, and long days farming the fields with his father. By the end of August, he is feeling whole again.

The first of September finds Olaf and Aina Tufte at Vienna as honored guests at the 22nd Congress of the European Respiratory Society and European Lung Foundation. The weeklong event convenes annually to improve the level of care doctors and other health-care professionals provide for sufferers of lung conditions. Olaf Tufte has asthma and allergies, which he has overcome in becoming a world-class athlete. He will be honored a tonight’s opening ceremony with the ELF Award for 2012, recognizing “significant contributions to lung health” for his athletic achievements and for donating his name and time to draw worldwide attention to the campaign for better lung health.

Some 3,500 of the 18,000 doctors and other health-care professionals who will attend the Congress are at this evening’s opening ceremony. Nearing the end of a series of presentations, awards and speeches, ELF Chair Monica Fletcher comes to the podium to introduce Olaf Tufte and to present him with the ELF Award. Previous ELF Award winners – and this year’s recipients of all other awards – were doctors, researchers, professors and politicians, and many in the crowd are curious as to why this award is being given to a Norwegian rower. This is the last presentation of a long evening, and the audience is restless and hungry, and ready for a drink or two.

Olaf steps forward, accepts the award, thanks ERS and ELF, and expresses his appreciation to his supporters, especially his wife, his family and his pulmonary physician. Then he turns to a little fellow who also is on the stage. The lad is Alex Supple, age 11. Alex lives in Newport, United Kingdom. He plays rugby and he, too has asthma – serious asthma from an early age.

Olaf Tufte and Alex Supple

Olaf had read about Alex and met him earlier in the day. Olaf says, “I know about you, Alex. You always do your best, and that’s what matters most to me. The other kids respect you, Alex, and I do, too.”

Olaf speaks clearly and directly to Alex, man-to-man. There is no doubting his sincerity. Sitting in the front row with Aina, I become aware of how still and quiet the vast audience seated behind us has become. Olaf reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out what he describes as a “goodie bag”. It is his Olympic games backpack. He takes from it his Norwegian Olympic Team T-shirt, which he has autographed. He reads aloud what he has inscribed on the back of the shirt. Below the Olympic rings and the word “NORWAY”, it reads: “To Alex: You are MY hero.” He presents Alex with the shirt (“you’ll grow into it – I am sure you’ll manage”) and gives him the backpack, which is filled with other mementos of Olaf’s athletic career.

He and Alex shake hands and their eyes lock. They are deeply connected and totally at ease before this large crowd. It is a remarkable moment. People here tonight are witnessing what makes Olaf Tufte a special champion: compassion, kindness and character. The applause is long and loud.

The following morning, Olaf and Aina (and Alex) join 500 other Congress attendees in a 5K run. It is an out-and-back course the Tuftes plan to run together just for fun. The leader, an accomplished Italian runner, passes them on his way back after the turn-around. He is 200 meters ahead of them. “Unacceptable”, thinks Olaf! He sets out after the man and with 150 meters to go, trails him by only 30 meters. No one is between them.

As Olaf’s long strides draw him steadily nearer, a challenger from Germany suddenly appears at his shoulder. The two of them finish the last 100 meters in an all-out sprint, with Olaf narrowly beating the German for second place. At the award ceremony that follows, Olaf jokes that a race he had thought would be a “coffee run” turned out to be his best international finish this year. What he means is that the race mattered. It always does.

Later that morning, Olaf and Aina climb into the taxi for the ride to the airport. As the car drives off, they are all smiles and waving.

© 2012 Donald O. Costello and Better Angel Rowing Endeavors, LLC. All rights reserved.
Used with permission.

Donald O. Costello lives is manager and general counsel for Olaf K. Tufte. He lives in Coos Bay, Oregon and may be reached at bowman@betterangelrowing.com.


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