Having arrived back from a month-long trip to Finland and Estonia, where we participated in a number of very competitive ski races, it is time to attempt to put into words a summary of our experience.
Karl and I participated in some Scandinavian Cup races in Otepaa, Estonia, and the Finnish National Championships in Tampere. We also managed to enter a couple of local-level (still very competitive) races in Finland.
To put it briefly, we had a terrific time, and learned a variety of new things. Beyond the semi-serious business of racing, we also had a lot of fun. One of us did a very nice face-plant less than one step into his race that was televised all over Finland. We struggled a little bit with language barriers in both countries, but this did help Karl with his small project of learning to speak Estonian. As you can see below, he did manage to say a few words to a reporter in Otepaa. Get out your Estonian-English dictionaries everyone, and see if you can decipher the article!
We enjoyed travelling to various big-time Nordic destinations, including Lahti, where we visited a ski museum and tried a little bit of computer-simulated ski-jumping. Another highlight would have to be our visit to Sauna-World in Vuokatti, where bathing suits were strictly forbidden and where we enjoyed our first eucalyptus sauna. We enjoyed many interesting new foods, with our personal favourite being Estonian barley porridge. We could give second place to Finnish chocolate, which is maybe a little-known secret.
One could drink endless cups of coffee discussing the finer points of the things we witnessed, but a summary of what we observed contains two broad observations. One is that what appears to separate us (competitive north-american skiers) from the often-considered elusive Europeans is not particularly training, mental toughness or technique. What would appear to give them a slight advantage, more than anything else, is that they compete more frequently in races of the highest quality, without having to travel extensive distances. At home, we often compete in races where we rarely see our competitors, and what is more, we have to spend of lot of time, money, and energy travelling to these races. We both enjoyed being able to drive not more than a couple of hours, and arrive at a race where we were sure to be pushed to the limits or our ability in head to head competition. While being passed in races is not always the most pleasant of experiences, it is a moment of truth that provides an opportunity for improvement every time. In Scandinavia, these opportunities came frequently, and significant improvement followed.
Our other major observation was that there were a huge number of athletes with years of consistent training under their belts. To give you an indication, in a 10km race in Finland, Karl finished roughly two and a half minutes behind the leader and finished in 64th place. A race of this level of competitiveness happens rarely in North America, largely because of the fact that there are less athletes doing consistent, year-round training. Because of the number of hard-working athletes, few are afforded the luxury of being supported by a national program. They find time to train as students or as more or less regularly employed people. For those of us in this situation at home, it is an encouraging thought. It is evidently possible to reach a very high-level in our sport, even if it is not possible to make it the sole focus of our lives. Many know that they will never reach a level allowing them to represent their country abroad. They train and compete for the best reason there is; because they relish the challenges of our sport, and because they want to achieve the limits of their abilities. It was refreshing to associate with these types of skiers. So there it is, those were our big lessons.
We would like to acknowledge a few of our big supporters, not only for this trip, but over the last few years:
- Toni Roponen (who organized our trip for us)
- Rudy Project
- Nakkertok Ski Club
- Waterloo Region Nordic Sports Club
- NTDC-Thunder Bay