Seven years ago, the sporting career of Swedish orienteer Michael Johansson appeared to be in ruins, following a serious skiing accident that left him unable to walk for more than a year. But as part of his rehabilitation he took up trail orienteering, and in 2014 he reached the peak of success in winning the gold medals in the Paralympic class in both the World and the European Championships. His changed lifestyle has brought many new friendships, interesting travel opportunities and intense challenges.
Fifty years of age this year, Michael has been orienteering since the age of 10. He was born in Vänersborg and has lived in nearby Trollhätten since 1990. He is an active member of Vänersborg Ski Club, which is as devoted to orienteering as to skiing. “In my youth I won races on occasions”, he says; almost throughout his orienteering life he has been keen to plan courses for others. Michael spends several hours a week on footO and trailO work in his club and district, and this work has included course planning and controlling up to national competition and Elite Series standard. In 2011 he was one of four organisers for the Swedish Relay and TrailO Championships, and as part of that work he was organiser and course planner for three competitions.
Accident in Vasaloppet
But let us go back seven years: an active ski and mountain-bike enthusiast, Michael entered Vasaloppet, the famous 90 km ski race between Sälen and Mora in Dalarna county, Sweden. A high-speed crash left him with a badly damaged hip and pelvis, which required two operations and a year’s intense rehabilitation before he could begin to walk properly again; 7½ months went by before he could walk even one step without support. Very slowly he started taking more exercise – walking, swimming, some cycling – but the orienteering he was used to was out of the question.
“But I thought about trail orienteering, which I’d only tried a few times a year in the A-class before, then with some good results. I now wanted to try trailO again and see how good I could be. With the interest and experience I had in maps, it would hopefully be possible to succeed in this new discipline, I thought.” Aiming towards being an elite trail orienteer and future medal success began on crutches in the summer of 2007.
“With these and other thoughts,” tells Michael, “I used my rehabilitation year to write a book that I called ‘Off Track’. Here I set down my experience of this completely changed life-style, the moments of joy and those of sorrow; the reality of life, the way I think about things and how I adjusted to a new life-style that will last for the rest of my days.” The book was printed in two editions with 500 copies in all.
He also had to adjust to a new working environment in his job connected with asphalt laying and associated ground work. “When I injured myself I had to give up driving completely for a few months, and sat in the office all the time. Today I have the same job but with more indoor work than before my injury, and I have a height-adjustable desk.” He is very busy, often with overtime, from April to November but working life is quieter in the winter. His job now includes a lot of executive tasks – planning projects, writing tenders, hiring staff, directing work in the field, billing customers etc. – a large work area that again now involves a lot of driving.
Training for trailO
Apart from orienteering, Michael’s hobbies are bandy (“a sport like football but on ice with a stick and a small ball”, that he himself has played), watching sport on TV and “doing a bit around the house”. But back to the orienteering. “I usually take on tasks a few times a year as course planner and controller in foot orienteering and trailO,” says Michael. “However I need more time to complete tasks than before the injury.”
Training for trailO is now a very important activity too. “I have this feeling for fine detail when I’m reading maps,” he says. “I like training in the detail-rich terrain in my area, with many maps and different terrain types; I use blown-up maps similar to the ones used in trailO competitions.” He also studies maps at home, and uses the Italian trailO website where you can train for TempO through a simulation program.
The right preparation for a competition is all-important. “I get a lot of pain and stiffness, depending on how far I go or how long I stand or sit still, because there is cartilage in the injured area and the joint surfaces are not as smooth as they were before. So before competitions I must prepare myself so as to optimise my ability to focus on orienteering and reduce the distractions of the pain and stiffness.” He prefers the traditional form of trailO, PreO, to the more time-challenging TempO; “It probably depends on relative success, but also because PreO takes longer and is more similar to my experiences with maps in foot orienteering,” he says. “During my almost 8 years in the sport, PreO has evolved and there are now better and more enjoyable courses, and this trend is continuing.”
Michael has a positive outlook on life as it now has to be lived. “I welcome what is happening; you cannot reverse the tape, you can only affect the future,” says Michael. “I now visit new countries in Europe and meet many nice people, things which would not have happened if I hadn’t hurt myself in 2007. Looking again at the positive side, it has now given me several medals, this year two individual golds. It’s great to take two gold medals in the same year! I liked the courses and had built up my confidence, so I felt I had a good chance of reaching the top – if I didn’t I think this diminishes the chances. It was then that I hoped it might be luck and skill in combination.”
“People have asked me what I now have as a target? My goal is to win more golds! It will not be easy, but not harder either when I have already proved to myself and others that it could be done last year. I feel strengthened for this year, especially as some competitions, including the World Championships in Croatia, offer the prospect of good terrain with decisive courses. I will train and prepare myself like I did for last season. The goal is to evolve so I get to a higher minimum level.”
Another goal for Michael is to help get more quality planning in trail orienteering through assisting with course planning education and the implementation of new ideas in trailO. He believes that the current debate in trailO about ‘zero tolerance’ – the margin to be allowed so that a ‘false’ control (no kite at the point indicated on the map) is fair – should resolve itself with more education and the avoidance of certain kinds of control site planning.
The Athlete of January, Russian ski orienteer Andrey Lamov, asks: What’s the most challenging thing about trailO?
Michael’s answer: “Every competition is different, and everyone is competing against each other regardless of age and sex, which means you have the chance of winning at a higher age compared to a sport where youngsters normally win (or vice versa).”
The Athlete of March will be the highly successful foot and ski orienteer Tove Alexandersson, Sweden. Michael’s question to her is: “Have you tried mountain bike orienteering and TrailO? Or will you do so?”
Michael believes there is a rosy future for trail orienteering: “especially in TempO, it should be possible to make the sport more interesting to audiences with the help of television and some new technologies. The public can get everything one could wish for in terms of excitement and nervous anticipation.” All four disciplines in orienteering have what it takes for competition at Olympic level, he believes.
He is clearly determined to play an active part in creating more and better trail orienteering. His current project is controlling three of the five trailO courses to be used at the Swedish O-Ringen at Borås this year. “I have been working on the trailO for O-Ringen for two years now,” he says, “helping with planning the use of the five areas and with the training of officials. I promise there will be varied and fine orienteering in Borås, hopefully regarded as one of the best PreO O-Ringens when it’s over.”
Text: Clive Allen
Previous Athletes of the Month
January 2014 Hans Jørgen Kvåle (NOR)
February 2014 Daisy Kudre (EST)
March 2014 Andreu Blanes Reig (ESP)
April 2014 Martin Fredholm (SWE)
May 2014 Susanna Laurila (FIN)
June 2014 Catherine Taylor (GBR)
July 2014 Soren Bobach (DEN)
August 2014 Martin Jullum (NOR)
September 2014 Emily Benham (GBR)
October 2014 Svetlana Mironova (RUS)
November 2014 Tim Robertson (NZL)
December 2014 Hana Hancikova (SVK)
January 2013 Staffan Tunis (FIN)
February 2013 Jerker Lysell (SWE)
March 2013 Stanimir Belomazhev (BUL)
April 2013 Davide Machado (POR)
May 2013 Evaldas Butrimas (LTU)
June 2013 Minna Kauppi (FIN)
July 2013 Oleksandr Kratov (UKR)
August 2013 Cecilia Thomasson (SWE)
September 2013 Jana Kostova (CZE)
October 2013 Mårten Boström (FIN)
November 2013 Tatiana Rvacheva (RUS)
December 2013 Olga Vinogradova (RUS)
January 2012 Alison Crocker (USA)
February 2012 Morihiro Horie (JPN)
March 2012 Polina Malchikova (RUS)
April 2012 Ionut Zinca (ROU)
May 2012 Tobias Breitschädel (AUT)
June 2012 Ivo Tišljar (CRO)
July 2012 Matthias Kyburz (SUI)
August 2012 Marika Hara (FIN)
September 2012 Lizzie Ingham (NZL)
October 2012 Tonis Erm (EST)
November 2012 Marit Wiksell (SWE)
December 2012 Tatiana Ryabkina (RUS)
February 2011 Olga Novikova (KAZ)
March 2011 Olli-Markus Taivainen (FIN)
April 2011 Emily Benham (GBR)
May 2011 Søren Saxtorph (DEN)
June 2011 Tove Alexandersson (SWE)
July 2011 Olav Lundanes (NOR)
August 2011 Thierry Gueorgiou (FRA)
September 2011 Erik Skovgaard Knudsen (DEN)
October 2011 Lauri Kontkanen (FIN)
November 2011 Annika Billstam (SWE)
December 2011 Anna Füzy (HUN)