Show On Snow

A Finnish husband and wife can both be first-place finishers
January 27, 1988

Overlooking Silamus Lake, near the village of Simpele, 180 miles northeast of Helsinki, Finland, five miles from the Soviet border, there stands a golden log house that is a child's dream of the idyllic cabin in the forest. Here dwells the best husband-and-wife team of cross-country skiers in the world.

Harri Kirvesniemi, 29, and Marja-Liisa Hämäläinen, 32, live with their two-year-old daughter. Elisa. on land the Hämäläinen family has occupied since the 17th century. The house was built for Hämäläinen by the local commune (the Finnish equivalent of a county) in thanks for her winning the 5-, 10-and 20-kilometer races at the Sarajevo Games and in hopes that she may yet do well in Calgary.

Kirvesniemi's best finish in Sarajevo was third in the men's 15K, but he will be in Calgary, too. and as we shall see. he has just begun to ski. Both are accomplished athletes in a demanding discipline, but more than that, they embody northern traditions that have evolved over a thousand winters.

To see Kirvesniemi and H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üm‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ül‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üinen in the surroundings from which they have sprung, you have to go to the region called Karelia in, oddly, summer. Much of the rest of the year they travel to races around the world and to training camps in Lapland and the Alps. But in summer the H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üm‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ül‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üinen farm, run by her mother, Aino, and brother, Matti—the cows are energetically milked by Marja-Liisa herself—pours forth produce. The summer days are long but few. A Finn cannot look upon a stand of birch without envisioning it filled with snow.

Kirvesniemi is tanned and rangy, with an easy smile. "I'm happy to talk." he says. "We shouldn't be a mystery to anyone." Exposed in sandals, his toenails have the crusted look of crystallized pitch, the result of 15 years of rubbing against running shoes and ski boots.

Marja-Liisa's hair is sauna-brush blonde, and her muscular limbs are of sanded alabaster. She can easily bring you to your knees with a handshake. You wince for the cows.

The nature of modern cross-country skiing, with its need for great upper-body strength to double-pole across level terrain, its requirement of huge expenditures of effort uphill and instant recovery downhill, has created the best-conditioned athletes in sport. No one comes close to cross-country skiers in physiological tests of fitness. Sweden's Sven-Ake Lundbäck, the 1972 Olympic 15K winner, was once tested as having an oxygen consumption rate as high as 94.6 milliliters per kilogram of body weight per minute. Kirvesniemi has burned 89 ml/kg/min. By contrast, the best runners are in the low 80s.

Too, since snow minimizes the chances of shock fatigue (the distance runner's bane), cross-country skiers are able to train at staggering length. "Nowadays, we count more the hours than the kilometers. To better compare the stress of paddling, biking, roller-skiing, running and strength training." says Kirvesniemi, "I'll do up to seven hours a day. But when I ski I admit I count 450 to 500 kilometers a week."

Kirvesniemi grew up in Mikkeli, in central Finland, where his father was a policeman and his mother an elementary school teacher. He skied his first race when he was four. He joined a ski club at five and took on a coach, Jorma Manninen, at 13. Until he was 18, Kirvesniemi's running seemed as promising as his skiing. He won the national junior (under 18) 3,000 meters in 1977. "But I lived near Ari Paunonen [still the world junior record holder at 3,000]. Usually I beat him skiing, but not running. If I was to have a chance of being the best in Finland, skiing was the way to go."

Kirvesniemi graduated from high school in 1977 with top marks in all six of his exams. Finnish skiers have a hard time continuing their education; their training load leaves them no time, and if they're good, they have a future somewhere within the sport. Kirvesniemi spent 11 months in the army, mainly in ski training camps, and since 1980 has been making much-interrupted progress toward a Master of Sport degree from the University of Yveskyla.

"My first year as a senior [skier], in some races I got quite near the top Soviet and Swedish skiers," he says. "In the Lake Placid Olympics, I was eighth in the 15K."

In the years that followed, Kirvesniemi established himself as a consistently high placer, though not quite high enough and a little too consistent for his taste. "I've got six bronze medals in Olympic and world championship races, and in the World Cup point totals I've been third twice. My place has always been third."

In 1978, at a ski camp, Kirvesniemi met Hämäläinen. "What was the attraction?" they are asked. They laugh, regarding their questioner as suddenly addled. "We liked each other."

In describing their partnership, they stress its practical aspects. "It would have been hard to spend eight months a year away in training camps," says Kirvesniemi. "But being two skiers together, we have a family life everywhere now, and it's easy to talk about skiing and training problems. We're able to keep difficulties inside the family and not mention them to others. When either of us feels bad, we can tell it to the other, even if the other already feels bad. We're in this together." It doesn't hurt, either, that Hämäläinen is a trained physiotherapist.

Hämäläinen was ranked third or fourth in Finland for six or seven years before she broke through to the top. At the '82 worlds she expected a fifth and a sixth in the 5K and 10K races, respectively. She finished 17th and 11th. She faced the TV cameras and said, "I'll never be a skier."

"It was a hard time for months after that," recalls Kirvesniemi, who responded with sympathy and nudging. "She learned training hard from me." In return, Kirvesniemi has learned from her the importance of rest. "She sees when I am too tired to train," he says. "Or she hears it, in my voice, my temper."

Their mutual devotion began paying off in 1983 when Hämäläinen won the World Cup seasonal points championship. In 1984 she peaked perfectly for the Olympics and created a distraction for Kirvesniemi. "The women's races in Sarajevo were always a day before the men's," he says. "I watched her on TV, because it disturbs me too much to be beside the trail."

Three times he watched his fiancèe win Olympic gold medals. Three times he had to go out the next day and forget about it. "After each of her races I skied alone, to go over her competition in my mind and then concentrate on my own," says Kirvesniemi. That last part was the killer. "So many times she had been disappointed in big competitions. I kept thinking of how rewarding this was for her. Maybe the exciting feeling I got watching her, and the people greeting her after the races, and the satisfaction of knowing I'd been a part of her skiing myself—maybe all that disturbed my concentration a little bit. It's hard to say. Maybe to be ready to fight in the Olympics, you have to begin to concentrate months before, and anything that happens in the last few days isn't that important. That's what I tell myself, because I don't really want her winning to be the reason I didn't ski my best."

In their house in Karelia there is a glass-topped chest with a display of skiing medals, including Hämäläinen's three Olympic golds as well as a bronze she won in the 4 x 5K relay. "Almost all the next summer people phoned and came to see Marja-Liisa," says Kirvesniemi. "Every day five or 10 tourists were here to talk to her. She was good about that, but it was hard to begin training for the '85 world championships. Psychologically, we were totally burned, both of us."

So, being practical people, they had a baby. "That was a lot harder than any 20-kilometer race," says Hämäläinen, who muscled through 15 hours of labor.

Kirvesniemi's career has spanned a revolution in skiing technique. Bill Koch of the U.S. is widely credited with being the first in competition, in 1981, to lift his skis out of the time-honored parallel tracks of a cross-country course and skate suitable stretches of terrain. Skating was practiced liberally at Sarajevo in 1984, and in a springtime race in northern Sweden later that year, Thomas Wassberg won a 15K event without even using kick wax, which provides a grip essential in traditional skiing. "For the first time someone had skated the whole thing," says Kirvesniemi. "The course had big hills, too. So the next day I skied without kick wax and found it worked fine."

At the '85 world cross-country championships in Seefeld, Austria, skaters reigned. "People with wax were destroyed," says Kirvesniemi. "Now people use kick wax only with really fast snow."

So in June 1986, the Fèdèration Internationale de Ski, treating skating much as swimming officials had the butterfly when it threatened to make the breaststroke obsolete, voted separate races for each style. "The Scandinavians wanted classical skiing because of tradition, and the middle Europeans joined them because of the mass ski tourism they have," says Kirvesniemi. "Old men and ladies aren't able to skate."

Kirvesniemi has decided to go classical in Calgary, where he senses a rewarding course awaits him. "At the last worlds [In Oberstdorf, West Germany], we had steep ups and downs, a lot of bumps and then a whole kilometer of flat. You had to have strong hands and upper body. None of that really agreed with my style. But Calgary's course has long uphills and downhills. It should suit me better, my long glide."

Enough ski talk. Hämäläinen and Kirvesniemi place the visitor before a plate of hot karjalan piirakka, the bland local specialty of egg and rice in a flattened, oval crust, which they wash down with black coffee that would peel the paint off a Saab. Everyone gazes at the Silamus. "From these lakes," Kirvesniemi says, pointing east, "the water goes to Russia."

Finland fought the bitter Talvisota, or Winter War, against Soviet invasion in 1939-40, before being forced to part with the eastern precincts of Karelia, including about 124 acres of Hämäläinen's ancestral home. On the Soviet side, no one is allowed to live within 20 miles of the border. All Finns see of the U.S.S.R. are forest and a few guards. "Soviet skiers are friends," says Kirvesniemi. "It would be nice if the border were opened. Marja-Liisa's father [now deceased] was born on that side. But I think most Finns who came from there are used to things now. It was a war. Somebody won. Somebody lost."

He thinks awhile. "There are many systems that are theoretically wonderful, but practically, they don't work so well," he says. "After the second war we had to be practical. We had to have good relations with the Soviets. We kept our independence."

They did, and in commerce at least, Finland has come to treat the U.S.S.R. as a third-world nation, buying its raw materials and selling it finished goods. "Yet Finns sometimes lack pride in being a Finn," says Kirvesniemi. "That's why sport is so important in Finland. That's why it was said about Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, and even Lasse Viren in the 1970s, that they put us on the world map."

Making sure Finland stays there, Hämäläinen and Kirvesniemi travel the snowy regions of the world, experiencing one last, typically Finnish longing: to come home. "It's so peaceful here," he says. "It's always what we need. I may end up working for the Finnish Ski Federation or a ski company, but it would be nice to stay right here on the farm."

A cloud covers the sun. The breeze freshens, rustling the birch leaves. "Summer's over," says Kirvesniemi, with an expectant grin.

It is July. Winter's coming on.

PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONDURING THE SUMMER, WITH THE SNOW MELTED AT HOME, KIRVESNIEMI TRAINED ON A SWISS GLACIER PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONAT THE LOG HOUSE, KIRVESNIEMI STRENGTHENED HIS ARMS BY USING A PULLING DEVICE PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONLIISA, HARRI AND BABY ELISA SAVOR THE BRIEF SUMMER AT SILAMUS LAKE THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)