Oscar Mathisen
Speedskating - Oscar Diary


The passengers boarding the “Kristianiafjord” on a cold, rainy October Sunday in 1916 did so in a mood of apprehensiveness, as the war was on and the high seas were the abodes of hidden dangers—u-boats slid underneath like insidious sea serpents ready to strike.

The ship called at Kristiansand in the evening and at Bergen next morning before going out to sea. The accident that Oscar relates during the life boat exercises in Bergen harbour, when a rotten rope snapped and one of the boats fell in the sea, must have underlined the feeling of gloom. Several passengers were more or less injured when they were fished up, but all were saved.

Once they were at sea, a storm fell over them and didn’t leave them alone until they arrived at New York on November 11. “Kristianiafjord” carried minimal ballast in order to be able to bring back as much goods as possible from the American abundance to the wartime scarcity back home, and she tossed like a cork on the high waves. After calling at Kirkwall they were in the Atlantic, and the storm hit them hard. Any luggage that wasn’t tied down flew like projectiles, and Oscar mentions a suitcase having contained couple of jam jars when the embarked, remembered with a certain horror. Finally arriving after those 13 stormy days must have been a relief.

But before he was allowed ashore he had to endure one of the scourges of the New World, the tabloid journalists. Of course, the tabloid format was very long in the coming yet, but these journalists were more tabloid than the concept itself. They descended on him like an avalanche. “Quick, here’s the World Champion!” Rumour had preceded him. With Mr. Johnson as its source no doubt. Here a World Champion had arrived from Europe with the intention of teaching the American skaters a lesson. It was sensational enough, as speedskating was a significant sport in North America at the time. And the mission of the journalists was to make it even more sensational:

“Oscar Mathisen, the Swedish skater, and his very attractive wife have arrived here in this country for a visit. Mathisen considers himself, incidentally, world champion in speed skating. That may be his opinion, but an excellent skater he is, no doubt. He’s got so many medals that all the walls of a room in his home are almost covered with them, and when he wears them all, he looks like a Christmas tree. He intends to spend some weeks here to show us how skating is done in Europe and Sweden in particular. He is very fleet of feet and has an appealing countenance.”

(Back-translation from an example that Oscar reproduces in his book. You kind of get the feeling that accuracy wasn’t their highest priority.)

Following a very superficial medical examination they were allowed to disembark. The reception party on land included Mr. Johnson and a few others with Norwegian affiliation. They were installed at a boarding house set up to be their base in New York. Oscar does not give the place a name. And thus a new routine started.