Athlete of the Month – May 2011

Name: Søren Saxtorph
Country: Denmark
Discipline: Trail orienteering
Career highlight in trail orienteering: Bronze medal in paralympic class, World Trail Orienteering Championships, 2010 in Trondheim
Career highlights in foot orienteering:
Danish Champion several times as a junior

Our athlete of the month of May has experienced all four orienteering disciplines but is now confined to just one: trail orienteering. Søren Saxtorph was a very good foot orienteer, one of the top juniors in Denmark, and he also dabbled in ski orienteering in 1989 and MTB orienteering in 2003. He was then also windsurfing, rock climbing or Telemark skiing whenever he could – he very rarely stood still in his free time.

Bathing accident changed everything

But everything changed for him after he suffered a bathing accident in 2003 which left him partly paralysed and wheelchair-bound.  Life for this physically very active person became very hard for a while, but now he looks back to that time and says: “When I am thinking that I am missing the thrill of rushing through forests hunting for controls, racing on my mountain bike, and so on, I say to myself: it’s good that I have experienced all these things and I know the feeling. I think it’s a shame for all those who have never tried all these exciting sports.”

Getting back into sport

What to do next? First Søren sought out a sport with some action like he had before, and he started with wheelchair rugby, whilst still going to the forest to support his wife Maria and their two children at orienteering events. He had heard of trail orienteering when he was an elite foot orienteer, but regarded it as a bit elementary. There were at the time no active trail orienteers in the Copenhagen area where he lives and so no trail orienteering events, and no-one to say “this might be just the sport for you”.

It was at a summer holiday course three years ago that Søren and Maria had the chance to try trail orienteering and appreciate the challenge and real competition element in it. “It’s a fantastic experience that we can compete both with and against each other. The fact that anyone can compete, irrespective of age and any handicap, makes it extra fun as a family sport”, Søren says.

Now a trail orienteering fanatic

Søren and his family now travel to trail orienteering events whenever they can. “We frequently go to competitions in other countries – mostly in Sweden where there are many events and it isn’t too far away”, Søren says. “We nearly always travel in our minibus, so that I can have my electric wheelchair with me. I need a helper when I use an ordinary wheelchair in the forest, and then I lose concentration. It can be hard enough anyway to concentrate when paths are uneven or muddy.”

Trail orienteering can be mentally more tiring than other orienteering disciplines; full concentration has to be maintained for up to three hours in international elite competition. Søren finds trailO is technically just as challenging as foot orienteering. “It’s really ‘hard-core’ map reading, similar to foot orienteering but much more complex”, he says. He also enjoys the post-event chat: “It’s always fun discussing the course and the individual controls – much the same as in footO but there’s so much more detail to talk about.”

Almost at the top!

Søren is now 40 years old and a fully established member of the Danish trail orienteering team. He has had good results before, but nothing as good as last year’s World Championships. He led the competition with an error-free round on day 1, but four mistakes on day 2 put him in third place in the final results, behind the Swedes Ola Jansson and Lennart Wahlgren. “The maps were excellent, and the courses were a fine combination of contour reading and using sight lines and bearings”, Søren says. “But a very important factor for me was that the tracks and paths were so good. I could move around in my wheelchair without worrying about getting stuck or falling over. So I was able to concentrate 100% on the orienteering”.

Celebrating Søren’s bronze medal at the World Championships in Trondheim, Norway.
Photo: Kell Sønnichsen

Replies to Emily Benham

April’s athlete, MTB orienteer Emily Benham, asked Søren three questions about his life as a trail orienteer:

How do you find the challenges of trail orienteering in comparison with foot orienteering?

The delightful base elements – forest, terrain and map – are the same. They are what all orienteers enjoy. But the technical challenge in trail orienteering is different. It’s still fine orienteering, assessment and overview of the terrain – but a lot of patience as well as concentration is needed in trailO because it takes time to make an assessment of every control cluster, and check all the different possibilities, before making your decision.

Do you find it difficult to be accurate and fast with your choice of control?

I’m not good at taking quick decisions, so I often find timed controls difficult. You don’t know beforehand how hard a timed control is, and therefore how careful and thorough you have to be when making your decision.

How do you train for trail orienteering – is there a lot of mental training and preparation before an event?

Mental training is for sure also important for trail orienteers, but I haven’t used it. In general preparation, it helps to think back to events in similar terrain and the type of control problem I got wrong there. And I need to ensure my wheelchair is in good working order!

Next month’s athlete

The June athlete will be Tove Alexandersson, elite foot and ski orienteer from Sweden. Søren has two questions for her: Do you use mental training as part of your training programme? and What do you do in your final preparations for a competition?

Text: Clive Allen, photos: Kell Sønnichsen

Previous Athletes’ of the Month

February 2011 Olga Novikova (KAZ)
March 2011 Olli-Markus Taivainen (FIN)
April 2011 Emily Benham (GBR)

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