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Tärnaby - an alpine gold mine in Sweden's far north

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10:19 CET+01:00
Rumours of Lapland reindeer passing on their snow manoeuvring ability to Sweden's top alpine skiers have yet to be proven.

But when the world ski championships ended recently, it wasn't just the indigenous Sami people of Sweden's far north, who have 300 words to describe snow, that were given reason to believe in a little magic.

In the wake of slalom legend Ingemar Stenmark and his record 86 World Cup wins Anja Pärson has in recent years put Sweden's alpine talents back on the map.

But it was her record-setting displays in Are, a six-hour drive further south of Tärnaby, that put her home town back in the spotlight.

Pärson sensationally won three world titles, including an elusive downhill gold which made her the first skier to champion all five disciplines.

Given that Tärnaby's two small ski runs, served by two basic 'T-bar' lifts, are simply not designed for speed, it was a huge achievement.

"Coming from Tärnaby and winning the downhill gold is really special. It shows boys and girls all over Sweden that even when you come from a small town you can win, and fulfil your dreams," said the Swede, who boasts 34 World Cup wins and two overall crowns.

Now with seven world titles, 11 medals from four championships and five Olympic medals including a slalom gold, Pärson is one her way to becoming a legend - and she is still only 25 years old.

She is now only four medals shy of equalling the record 20 world championship and Olympic medals won by retired Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt, considered the greatest ever all-round skier.

It was no surprise her home town - situated less than 100km from the arctic circle and with a population of around 600 - prompted huge media interest.

Most visitors ended up mystified after seeing two small slopes which, compared with those found in Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy, look quite unremarkable.

Except that, thanks mainly to Stenmark, Pärson and the latest Tärnaby terror, Jens Byggmark - all three of whom have Sami family lineage - the skiers who grew up on Tärnaby's slopes boast 124 wins and five overall victories in the prestigious World Cup series.

Skiers from the rest of Sweden have 54, Italy 204, France 235, Switzerland 478 and alpine powerhouses Austria 670.

Pärson's father Anders, whose grandmother was a Sami, admitted their close links to a way of life which revolves heavily around reindeer-herding.

"I love that life," he told AFP.

"We're still a part of that people. My grandmother was a full Lappish girl, and we have friends of the family who are married to Sami. We like to spend time with them in the mountain with the reindeer."

Reindeer, especially in Lapland, are renowned for their ability to run on ice and snow.

But there are more tangible reasons for Tärnaby's success.

With snow six months of the year, the local ski club is the hub of the community. When it comes to interval breaks, the local schoolchildren hit the slopes. One is called 'Ingemarbacken', the other 'Anjabacken'.

In time, and if the space can be found, there may also be a 'Jensbacken'.

Byggmark recently stunned a handful of experienced peers to claim two consecutive slalom victories at Kitzbuhel in Austria.

But Hans-Peter Carlson, the president of the town's ski club, Tärna IK Fjällvinden, is hoping their now famous production line won't stop at the promising 21-year-old.

"All the skiers from Tärnaby are inspiring," Carlson told AFP.

"So for the kids here there are no mental barriers. They grow up thinking, 'Ingemar and Anja made it, so why can't I'?

"Right now we have a few young skiers who are showing promise. Maybe in four or five years time we will see a new star from Tärnaby."

Justin Davis

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