When Reidar Wahl moved to the United States from Norway in 1979, it was to join the professional downhill ski racing circuit. When he moved to Sandpoint from Telluride, Colo., in 1998, it was so he could have a great place to raise a family while still having a great mountain to ski. When a knee injury in 1987 ended his skiing career at age 29, Wahl turned his attention to woodworking. The 1983 World Pro Tour champion now makes his living as a craftsman of fine furniture using an age-old technique called mortise-and-tenon. The native Norwegian gained an appreciation of antiques from his parents, who collected them. Moreover, he inherited his competitive spirit and drive to succeed from his father, who had been an amateur ski racer, and his artistic nature from his mother, a painter.
Although hes known around Sandpoint by the Americanized nickname pronounced like radar, Wahls first name is really pronounced more like rider. His woodworking business, Norwegian Wood, carries a client list that reads like a miniature Whos Who: Bill Ford, the president of Ford Motor Co., actress Susan St. James and the acting clan of the Carradines David, Keith and Robert are among them. As a woodworker, Wahl has been featured in Snow Country magazine; Colorado Homes & Lifestyles magazine; Interior Furnishings Southwest, a sourcebook published in 1992; and Cowboy Chic, a deluxe coffee table book published in 2000.
Wahl has passed his love of skiing down to his children, Peik, age 8, and Lani, 5. His son is already racing through the tutelage of the Schweitzer Alpine Racing School (SARS), of which Wahl has been serving on the board for a year. And although Wahl, age 43, is undergoing a difficult time in his personal life (he is in the midst of a divorce), he seems upbeat and optimistic. In June 2000, he bought a 10-acre parcel with a 3,000-square-foot shop in rural Sagle just 20 minutes from Sandpoint. He is looking forward to building a Norwegian-style cabin next year just up the hill from his shop.
Q. Can you tell me more about your time growing up in Norway?
I believe that given the time warp, or time difference, between now and then, it would be very much like growing up in Sandpoint ... small town, lots of recreational activity, a lot of sports, good family values. Climate wise, it was very much alike the good four seasons with warm summers.
Q. What kind of travels and racing were you doing as part of the Norwegian National Team?
I got to go all over Europe, Eastern Europe, America, South America, Japan all over the world, really.
Q. Did you ever have a chance to go to the Olympics?
Thats a sore spot because I never knew how important that would be. I probably could have gone to the Olympics, but I turned pro in 1979. I was too young in 1976 (for the Olympics). I went to the World Championships in 1978, and turned pro in 79.
Q. Do you regret turning pro before the 1980 Olympics?
No, not really. A lot of other good things came of it, but for résumé status, yes.
Q. What led you to make the jump to the United States and become a professional?
The U.S. was just cowboy books and the whole culture over here. After a while in Norway, you start developing a sense of the grass is always greener. I always wanted to come to the U.S. I made some phone calls and wrote some letters. It took some guts because you stepped into something totally different, and youre totally responsible for yourself rather than being under the wings of a ski federation, which takes care of everything. It was a huge curiosity. And the format of ski racing, where you go head-to-head instead of one at a time, brings out different things. I had gotten an old shotgun from my dad that was worth quite some money. He goes, Im not going to pay for anything for you here, but Ill give you this and you can do anything you want with it. Sell it and have some money in case things dont pick up right away. So, I sold it.
Q. How do you go from a national team to being a professional?
Youve got to get sponsorship. If you can get sponsorship, then youve just got to be brave and get enough courage to come over here and try it, because you have to qualify. If you cant qualify, you have to go home again.
Wahl qualified on his first try and gained sponsorship from Head Skis, Raichle boots and Tyrolia bindings. He ended up spending nine seasons on the professional skiing circuit.
Q. What was your single greatest moment in that nine years?
Winning the championship in 83. I won the overall title in 1982. When I first came over, I think I finished about 22nd overall on the pro tour. The next year I finished 12th, and the third year I won it, and the fourth year I won it. Then I was in the top four for the next three years. The first year that I won overall in 82, I started out winning the first race of the year, which was in Austria. Then I went on to win another four races that year plus the overall title. From then on, it was just full blast sponsorships, traveling, training and full concentration.
Q. How did you realize what you wanted to do after your forced retirement?
I could have moved to New York and become product manager at Head Skis, for example. I had several offers, but when youve been so intensely involved in a sport, its kind of nice to step back and not do anything for a while. When I was laid up with my leg, I started getting interested in furniture, because I needed something. I had gone to design school in L.A. for a couple of semesters in the summer to learn how to be a clothing designer, and I had been making things on my own always, creating crafty kind of stuff. I always wanted to create things with my hands. And my mom was a painter. So I figured that particular side of creativity, I didnt want because it comes and goes so fast. If I was going to make something, I would rather take a stab at making something that would be around for longer. Wood is more a mans kind of work, to say it mildly. I just picked up some hand tools, and started making a couple little things. Before I knew it, I was making stuff to sell and got into stores and started getting clients. One thing led to another, and more tools and a shop and then a whole client base.
Q. How did you manage to learn on your own?
I read a lot. I went to museums in Norway and crawled all over these places and looked underneath stuff and saw how it was made. I put two and two together, and it was a good thing to look at antiques that had been around for hundreds of years because I immediately taught myself how to do it the old-fashioned way. Since then I learned some little tricks of the trade here and there, where I can save time and money and make things efficient and still worthwhile. Im certainly very influenced by old furniture. The old stuff has character. ... Stuff thats rooted with elements of traditional design is way, way pleasing to me.
Q. It gives you a real sense of pride, doesnt it, to see that the stuff you build actually gets used?
Very much so, and I take great pride in using materials that are either recycled or firewood to other people. I love building stuff with that that I can sell and make a living off of and be resourceful. Thats very important to me. Plus, if I can create something that adds to an interior space in a way of warmth and friendliness and timelessness, then I feel that Ive done something good.
Q. Do you ever wish that you were back on the racing circuit?
Oh, yeah, all the time. I miss the competitive spirit of it. I miss the traveling. ... Just the life, the disciplined life, was great.
Q. How has what you learned in professional skiing carried over to what you do now?
I think my work ethic is very important. Sometimes its a drawback because you can get caught working too hard, trying to get too many projects going at the same time. I think my extensive traveling became an education in itself, so Ive seen and understood and absorbed more because Ive been so many places.
Q. Did you take the name of your business (Norwegian Wood) from the old Beatles song?
Of course, I am Norwegian and I do create with wood, and everybodys heard the song, so naturally the two elements Norwegian Wood seemed to be the right fit.