Three female rowers in wheelchairs pose with their medals

Birgit Skarstein

Rowing | Nordic Skiing

When Birgit Skarstein is not training for cross-country skiing, she is rowing.

The dual-sport machine competed at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, and now the reigning rowing world champion has turned her focus to the Summer Paralympics in 2020.

The prospect of winning gold at Tokyo 2020 look positive. She has won both her World Cups in 2019, and her winning performance at the 2018 Worlds in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, remains a World Best Time (10:13.630) in the PR1 women's single sculls (PR1 W1x).

She has come a long way since just missing the podium at the Rio 2016 Games. But that made the Norwegian hungrier for gold. She bounced back to win gold at the 2017 World Championships and is looking to make it three in a row this year in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria; she has also won every World Cup race since Rio 2016.  

Skarstein injured her left leg while jumping into a lake in 2010. During treatment, she received an epidural injection in her back that accidentally injured the spinal cord, paralysing her from the waist down.

She picked up rowing in 2012 and competed in her first major regatta at the 2013 World Cup in Varese, Italy.
Skarstein studied political science at the University of Oslo and is a member of the International Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Council.


Impairment information

Type of Impairment
Spinal Cord Injuries
Origin of Impairment

Further personal information

Oslo, NOR
English, Norwegian
Higher education
Political Science - University of Oslo: Norway

Sport specific information

When and where did you begin this sport?
She began Para cross-country skiing in 2009 at age 20 in Beitostolen, Norway, and took up Para rowing in 2012.
Why this sport?
Following her spinal cord injury, she initially took up Para cross-country skiing. "I wanted to get back into nature, enjoy the fresh air and beautiful mountains. Wanted to go on trips with my friends and family and get back into my life." She later began Para rowing because she wanted to take part in a summer sport. "The chief of Paralympic sports in Norway guided me towards rowing as he thought that would fit my body and mind. Luckily I got straight into a really great rowing club and was taken in with spirit and lots of challenges. I just completely fell in love."
Club / Team
Christiania Roklub: Levanger, NOR
Name of coach
Bjorn Kristiansen [cross-country skiing, national], NOR; Magnus Evenby [cross-country skiing, national], NOR

General interest

Politics, volunteer work, knitting, downhill skiing, kayaking. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)
Memorable sporting achievement
Winning gold in the Para rowing PR1 single sculls event at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, and winning four medals at the Para cross-country skiing world championships. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022; SportsDeskOnline, 05 Mar 2022)
Most influential person in career
Para rowing coach Johan Flodin and her teammates in the Norwegian rowing national team. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)
Hero / Idol
Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjorgen, Norwegian rower Olaf Tufte. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)
In January 2020 she sustained a torn stomach muscle and a stress fracture in her back. (, 07 Feb 2020)

She sustained three stress fractures to her ribs in the 2015 rowing season, and required four months to recover. (, 22 Jul 2016)

In 2013 she broke her right femur. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)

In 2011 she tore off the kneecap of her right leg while skiing. (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)
Sporting philosophy / motto
"Do your best and enjoy the rest!" (Athlete, 05 Mar 2022)
Awards and honours
She was named Female Para Athlete of the Year at the 2019 Norway Sports Gala. She also received the Honorary Prize of Egeberg, which recognises Norwegian athletes who excel in more than one sport. (, 25 May 2019;, 05 Jan 2019)

She was named flag bearer for Norway at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang. (, 09 Mar 2018)

She received the 2016 Tronder Award, which recognises outstanding achievement in the Trondelag region of Norway. (, 06 Jan 2017)
Other sports
She has represented Norway in Para cross-country skiing and Para rowing. In rowing, she won gold in the PR1 single sculls at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and competed at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. She has also competed in cross-country skiing, for which she is classified as an LW11 athlete, at the 2014 and 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. (IPC, 29 Nov 2021; SportsDeskOnline, 02 Dec 2021;, 01 Jan 2020)
To compete at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing. (, 05 Dec 2018)
In 2008 she sustained serious injuries to her left leg in a swimming accident in Malaysia. She jumped into the water from a jetty, but had not checked the water depth and hit the bottom. She had 16 operations, having also contracted a bacterial infection. In September 2009, in the last of those 16 operations in Norway, she received an epidural anaesthesia that was incorrectly administered and never regained the feeling in her legs. (, 20 Dec 2016;, 16 Aug 2015;, Dec 2014;, Mar 2014;, 27 Jan 2012)
Other information
She has competed in both Para rowing and Para cross-country skiing at international level, and says combining both sports has been beneficial for her athleticism. "Rowing is my number one priority. I train and compete in skiing to become a better rower and find this to be a great combination. Changing around sports and movements makes me able to train better, to train more, and to lower the risk of injuries. Rowing does make me a better skier as it gives me strength and endurance as well as a competitive mindset. Skiing gives me the hours and hours I need as base training. Changing environments and movements keeps me sharp and hungry, and I can pick up the best parts from both environments." (, 01 Nov 2019)

She has served on the International Paralympic Committee [IPC] athlete's council, the finance committee of Oslo City Council in Norway, and the Norwegian Advisory Board of Biotechnology. (, 28 Oct 2021;, 01 Nov 2019; Athlete, 26 Feb 2018)

In 2020 she became the first wheelchair dancer to feature on Norwegian celebrity talent show 'Skal vi danse?' [Shall we Dance?]. She made the decision to take part in the programme following the postponement of the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, and finished in sixth place. "I like the show because it's so demanding. It's really difficult and the fact that no one has ever done it in a wheelchair in Norway, it means that we can break some new ground. It's cross-training at a whole new level. It surprised me that no matter how many boundaries we broke, or how many crazy impossible things we managed to nail, there was always some people not believing in us and saying I shouldn't be there. Sometimes it felt like it was us against the world and it brought us into a mission that was bigger than us, the mission of communicating that dance is for everyone and we are a part of this world just as much as you are." (, 22 Aug 2020)


Unit Date Rank
Paralympic Winter Games 2014 (Sochi, Russia)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's 12 km Sitting Final Round 2014-03-09 12
Women's 1 km Sprint Sitting Semifinal 2014-03-12 8
Women's 5 km Sitting Final Round 2014-03-16 12
2015 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships Cable (Cable, United States of America)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's Long Distance - Free Style Sitting Race 1 2015-01-25 9
Women's Sprint - Classic Sitting Race 1 2015-01-28 11
Women's Middle Distance - Classic Sitting Race 1 2015-01-31 11
Rio 2016 Paralympic Games (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's Single Sculls ASW1x Heat 1 2016-09-09 3
Women's Single Sculls ASW1x Heat 2 2016-09-10 1
Women's Single Sculls ASW1x Final A 2016-09-11 4
2017 IPC Nordic skiing World Championships Finsterau, GER (Finsterau, Germany)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's Sprint - Free Style Sitting Final 2017-02-12 5
Mixed Relay Final 2017-02-15 5
Women's Long Distance - Classic Sitting Final 2017-02-16 2
Women's Middle Distance - Free Style Sitting Final 2017-02-19 3
Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games (Pyeongchang, South Korea)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's 12km Sitting Final 2018-03-11 9999
Women's 1.1km Sprint Sitting Final 2018-03-14 8
Women's 5km Sitting Final 2018-03-17 7
4x2.5km Mixed Relay Final 2018-03-18 8
Prince George 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships (Prince George, Canada)
Event Medal Unit Date Rank
Women's Middle Distance - Free Style Sitting Final 2019-02-17 3
Women's Sprint - Free Style Sitting Final 2019-02-18 4
Women's Long Distance - Classic Sitting Final 2019-02-24 3