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Born in the village of Lima, near the Norwegian border, Swedish cross country skier Sixten Jernberg built up his physical strength and stamina by working as blacksmith and lumberjack. His international skiing career began at the age of 25, when he took part in the 4x10km relay at the 1954 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun (SWE), where Sweden finished third.
Making his Olympic debut in the new 30km men’s cross-country event on 27 January, he was the 48th competitor to depart on a course featuring treacherous icy sections as well as powdery snow in other parts. At the 10km mark, Jernberg had the lead with a split time of 32:54, which gave him a six-second advantage over his nearest challenger, Veikko Hakulinen (FIN). Accelerating strongly in the latter part of the race, the Finn crossed the line in 1:44.06, beating his Swedish adversary by 24 seconds. By finishing in the bronze berth, Pavel Kolchin (URS), who was 46 seconds behind Jernberg, became the first-ever man to win a medal for the Soviet Union at the Winter Games.
Three days later, Jernberg competed in the 15km, which had replaced the 18km in Cortina and which, for the first time, was not included in the Nordic combined. . Setting off 56th this time, he had Hallgeir Brenden (NOR), who had set the early pace with a time of 49:39, firmly in his sights, but despite a strong finish, he finished 35 seconds off first place and picked up his second silver medal of the Games. Kolchin again ended up third, while 30km winner Hakulinen was a distant fourth.
Jernberg’s moment of glory would finally come in the 50km, held in bitterly cold conditions on 2 February. As temperatures descended to minus 10 degrees, the competition was transformed into a duel between the Swede and the defending champion, Veikko Hakulinen. Seemingly at home in the extreme conditions that had set in, Jernberg, who started out five minutes after Hakulinen, led for the entire race to land the Olympic title in 2:50:27, over a minute ahead of the Finn. Another Soviet skier, Fyodor Terentyev, finished third.
The 4x10km relay brought the cross-country skiing competitions to a close on the last day of the Games, on 4 February. On another icily cold day, the Soviet athletes, who had all performed so creditably in the individual events, joined forces to make up a formidable unit. Terentyev got the team off to a snappy start and Kolchin stretched their lead, before Nikolay Anikin and Vladimir Kuzin kept their heads to ensure a Soviet victory in 2:15:30. Finland finished second, while Jernberg, posting a time of 33:44 in a blistering anchor leg, snatched the bronze medal for Sweden ahead of Norway, Italy and France.
Jernberg, with one gold, two silvers and a bronze to show for his efforts in Cortina, was the most decorated athlete of the 1956 Games. He refused to rest on his laurels, however, going on to become one of the greatest “long distance” skiers of all time. At Squaw Valley 1960, he collected a gold in the 30km and a silver in the 15km, and then followed that up with two more golds (in the 50km and 4x10km relay) and a bronze (in the 15km) at Innsbruck 1964. For many years afterwards, the nine-time Olympic medallist held the record for the number of podium appearances at the Winter Games.