Paralympic champ Birgit Skarstein on Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, and changing hearts and minds

Hear from the Norwegian Paralympic rower and cross-country as she spoke to the Olympic Channel and Olympics.com about that moment from Tokyo and her mindset for the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing. 

By Chloe Merrell
Para Nordic Skiing
Picture by NAOMI BAKER/GETTY IMAGES

At Tokyo 2020, in 2021, Para rower Birgit Skarstein made history. When the 32-year-old crossed the line in the women’s PR1 single sculls event she became Norway’s first ever Paralympic champion.

It was a significant moment for the Paralympian who left Rio 2016 disappointed after just missing out on a podium spot. Redemption in Japan was the order.

Dual-threat Skarstein is now in line to make her fifth Paralympic appearance at the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, where she will compete in Para cross-country skiing.

Ahead of the February event, the four-time Para rowing World Champion spoke to the Olympic Channel Podcast to discuss how training is going, what her mindset will be for Beijing 2022, and what it felt like to prove people wrong when she took the stage in Norway’s version of Dancing with the Stars.

Birgit Skarstein: “I needed to figure out how I could keep being me”

It was while working abroad in Thailand that Skarstein’s life changed.

When out swimming and diving into the ocean, the Norwegian severely damaged her foot. She flew home to have an operation where they simultaneously addressed the injury and the flesh-eating bacteria she had subsequently contracted.

The rehabilitation process took nearly 10 months, but it was a period of time the Paralympian was thankful for:

“They mended me back together and they killed off the bacteria and I got out of it. I started studying political science at the University of Oslo and suddenly I was back into my life and was really grateful for it. I was I was so happy that I was getting a second chance, you know, because for a while there..."

When they discovered there was still some residual weakness in Skarstein’s leg, doctors decided to put her through an additional routine operation. However, the epidural injection she was given in her lower back injured her spinal cord, paralysing her from the bellybutton down.

The Paralympic champion admits initially she struggled to accept her new circumstances:

“One of the things that I thought about first after the injury was that: 'No, no, no, I cannot be paralysed. No, no, that doesn't work for me. Oh, I'm not the kind of type to be paralysed.'

“I needed to figure out, you know, how I could keep being me and how I could keep doing my things without having the ability to use my body as I used to.”

Though accepting her circumstances took time, Skarstein shares how it was an important step and her outlook on life has changed accordingly:

“Sometimes it’s up and downs, and sometimes you get a punch that you didn't expect and sometimes you know, life isn't fair. It's not like you been promised anything when you are born. No one gives you a book and it tells you this is how your life's going to be. I think by accepting that is a part of life, I think that's quite important.”

Birgit Skarstein of team Norway is seen in the finish area after completing the 4x2.5km mixed relay cross-country during day nine of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Birgit Skarstein: The heights of Tokyo 2020 and expectations for Beijing 2022

Winning gold at Tokyo 2020 is a moment Skarstein will likely never forget. The Para rower shared how it took her several moments to compute the magnitude of what she had achieved:

“I was so happy. I was just breath-taken and knocked to the ground.

“I made so many detailed plans for what to do until I reached the finish line, but then I realised I made no plan for after the finish line. I don't even know where I'm going. I don't even know what to do now. I just sit there looking around me like: 'what happened?'

“I see my coach, you know, waving and saying, ‘Come on here!’ And I'm still in kind of a mental shock that we actually made it these 10 years of work and 12 years since they're almost on the date, you know, 12 years since I was paralysed and 13 years since I lost my foot. It's been such an intense period with ups and downs."

Skarstein admits that with all the highs from her time in Japan coming back to winter sports hasn’t been so easy. Her motivation has been there, but her body has been less willing. It has meant that she has adjusted her expectations for February’s Games in the Chinese capital:

“I recognise that a lot of the choices that I have made to make sure I have the maximum opportunity in Tokyo is choices that also reduces my chances in Beijing. And then I figure that, you know, my love for the sport is so big and I enjoy it so much that I would rather show up and do my best in the circumstances that I have and make it a blast on the way and try to learn from it.

“If I can show up on that World Nordic Championships in January, only months after I came home from Tokyo and be part of that and be part of the team that spreads joy and spreads, know energy and commitment to the community, that's good enough for me.”

Birgit Skarstein on Dancing with the Stars

When the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021 following the outbreak of COVID-19, Skarstein decided to fill her time with a new challenge: dancing.

She did not know, when signing up for the celebrity television show Skal Vi Danse - Norway's version of Dancing with the Stars, quite the impact she would have. From proving people wrong to raising expectations, the experience was like nothing else:

“Already at the press conference where they released my name as one of the competitors, it was so much buzz by people saying 'how can a person in a wheelchair dance, that's not even possible. People in wheelchairs can't even dance. Guys, they don't even have, you know, knees to bend. How the heck is this going to work?'

“I just figured I was going to keep quiet. I was going to show them.”

After she performed she opening dancing, a waltz, Skarstein saw the impact her dance had on people’s perceptions:

“I think quite a few people were mind blow that it could be so beautiful because they had never seen it before. And what I really wanted to show people was that just because you haven't seen it doesn't mean it's not possible. Just because you haven't seen it doesn't mean that it's not for real or that it doesn't exist, or that it can't be done.

Now the next season is on, the Paralympian has been delighted by the messages she has received:

“I had so many messages from parents saying that the kids were asking, 'But where are the people like her?' Not only did we learn, teach them, you know, that it's it's totally OK that some people have different ability and also, you know, we told them that this is also part of life. They started expecting it. They didn't only accept it, they expected it!"

To listen to the full podcast featuring Brigit Skarstein click here.

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