World Earth Day: IBU’s Sustainability Ambassador Ukaleq Astri Slettemark on her 23/24 season and life in Greenland

Ukaleq Astri Slettemark is a biathlon athlete coming from Greenland, one of the most wintery places in the World. In the past years, she has, however, seen the change in the environment where she grew up and is now keen to change the tide as IBU’s Athlete Ambassador. We had a sit down with her ahead of World Earth Day to talk about her past season, Greenland’s Arctic Circle Race, and the effects of climate change at her home.

On hard season and team spirit

“It was a really bad season for me. I had a lot of sickness during the preparation in the fall and when the season started, I was not ready at all,” Ukaleq Astri Slettemark says. Already after the World Cup opening in Oestersund, she decided to go to the IBU Cup. However, Ukaleq is not completely dissatisfied with the past season, since she finished 7th in Obertilliach Single Mixed relay together with her younger brother, Sondre Slettemark. “This race showed that if we were both in good shape, we would not be not too far from a win in this discipline.”

Although she felt tiredness in her body during the whole season, this could not be noticed in her shooting. “Even in my first biathlon competition, I hit 10-out-of-10. I love shooting as well as learning new stuff and all the small details. I think this is why I am good at it,” she explains.

It is not only Ukaleq who is competing in biathlon but the whole Slettemark family. Both of her parents were World Cup-level biathletes and now working as officials, while her 19-year-old brother is competing alongside her. “It is special to compete with Sondre. I have been traveling alone before but now I have a team and I feel the team spirit. I finally understand what the other teams are feeling! I am so proud of him.”

One might wonder if it is harder to travel and compete with a brother next to you and if it causes fights between the siblings. Ukaleq just laughs and says: “We are good friends. He is probably one of my best friends and if we fight, we get over it quickly.”

Arctic Circle Race as a season cool-off

Whereas a lot of the athletes want to relaxand take it easy after the season, that was not the case for Ukaleq. She decided to take part in the Arctic Circle Race, which takes place in her home, Greenland. The three-day competition is 160 kilometers, and the participants spend two nights in the camps in the wilderness.

“I wanted to do the race for so many years, but my parents told me it is hard. My mom participated 17 times, three of which she was pregnant! Moreover, she even won twice while pregnant. She is a little bit of a legend here”, Ukaleq laughs. “Of course, I wanted to do it too. It was an amazing experience and something people should try.”

When asked what was the hardest part,the answer comes immediately. “I had no idea how to pace myself since I always race so short races. The first day I started way too hard, my heart rate was too high, and I hit the wall. I was thinking if it is this hard for three days how will I survive? The last two days I went easier, and it was nicer. Then I enjoyed the race instead of just surviving”, Ukaleq recalls.

She admits that the best part about the experience was the other people and spending time with them between the legs. “When everyone is finished you just sit and talk about the race for hours. There are so many little details and dramatic things that have happened, everyone has their own story. I met a girl from Australia who had traveled all the way here just to do the race. That was cool!”

A front-row seat to climate change

When we start to talk more about Greenland, there is a clear passion in Ukaleq for her home. “The culture is so community-based here. Everyone knows each other and helps each other. Every time I go out in the city, I meet someone I know.” Ukaleq currently lives in Lillehammer, Norway for most of the year to have better training conditions but still misses her home in Greenland. “Everyone is happy to talk to you here. When I call my friends, they are always down to do something. That is special and beautiful,” Slettemark says.

Given Greenland's climate, despite its name, it has always been considered a cold place with a lot of ice. Now, however, the scenery changes, and the country loses the ice sheet fast. “You can see a really big difference here. You see it with the ice sheet, every single year it goes back. Ever since I was a kid, I can see a huge difference. Winters are getting much shorter. Before you would be able to ski for the whole of March and April, sometimes even until May. This year the snow is already melting, and it is quite bad,” Ukaleq explains.

“You can also see a difference in the animals. There are fewer fish. Greenland is also heavily dependent on our hunters since animals are the only natural resource we have. Since the ocean ice is disappearing, some of the hunters are losing their catch. They are using the ice to hunt and if there is none, they cannot do it. This means they have nothing to live off and they would need to move somewhere else. It is really scary,” she says.

Ukaleq is IBU’s Sustainability Ambassador, and she likes to come up with new solutions to live more sustainable. “This is why I am such a strong advocate for climate because I do not want to lose my home. I like to talk to people and make them more aware, being an ambassador is a good conversation starter. I also learned a lot from IBU’s courses that we’ve been having.”

“I have been focusing on individual changes I can do because it is easy to grasp them. With IBU’s training, I’ve been learning a lot also on the bigger changes such as sustainability at events. As an athlete, you can influence people and you have the power to change the way people think. It is cool to hear when people say that they have changed based on what I have told them. With the other ambassadors, we want to also do something a little more concrete in the future. I hope we can do some project such as a poster for the IBU Family Club or a Facebook marker place for used clothes and gear”, Ukaleq concludes.

Photos: IBU, Slettemark

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