By Teemu Virtanen
Finland has always been and will continue to be one of the great nations of cross-country skiing. Many legendary heroes of the sport, such as the Ylläs-Levi ambassador Juha Mieto, have left their mark in the history books of Nordic skiing, and the new generation of superstars led by Iivo Niskanen and Krista Pärmäkoski are breaking through.
But long distance skiing is another thing entirely. Pauli Siitonen carved his name in the Hall of Fame by winning Vasaloppet in 1974 and being one of the greatest long distance skiers in the 70s, but he is a lone wolf in the game and it’s been a long time since his heyday.
Now, this dilemma may be remedied as Team Mäenpää is adamant to become one of the greatest pro teams in the field. The Mäenpää skiers have trained very well over the dry-land period focusing on workouts that are similar in nature to Visma Ski Classics races; hard interval sessions within long exercises.
The team director Kim Mäenpää is quite surprised that his pro team is the only* one from Finland at the moment, but he believes that one of his skiers will be on the podium this season. The team also aims to climb higher in the pro team competition by the time the season is over.
“Ari Luusua and Niko Koskela are our most potential skiers to reach podium places this season,” Kim acknowledges with confidence. “Christoffer Lindvall can be among the best 30 skiers on a good day, but he has been sick lately. I hope he’ll recover before Marcialonga and Vasaloppet. Evelina Bångman is our only woman and she loves training hard, but she’s been a bit sick as well. Isac Holmström, Viktor and Hannes Mäenpää are still young, but the future is theirs while Hans Mäenpää can keep up with the lead group in tough conditions.”
The aforementioned Hans, Kim’s little brother, is the reason for the team’s existence. Hans used to be walking on a different path with a cigarette in his hand and lust for life in his restless heart. But he suddenly got an epiphany and decided to turn his life around by getting into endurance sports. His aim was to survive a marathon run and manage to do Vasaloppet. That he did, and now he has gone the extra mile as he became the first man on earth to ski 472 km in 24 hours.
“Our family has always been keen on sports,” Kim recalls his childhood days. “When I was a child, we had many competitions and races against each other, and we had a 30 km track next to our house. Sometimes, one of the brothers wanted to beat his siblings and decided to do the lap twice at the age of 12-16. That’s where the foundation and fondness for endurance came from.”
When the discussion turns to the state of long distance skiing in Kim’s home country, the tone of his voice gets a more serious. He calls for a proper cooperation between media, ski clubs, event organizers and the National Ski Federation, and he thinks that there needs to be programs for young skiers helping them to step into the world of Visma Ski Classics.
“I’m happy to see Visma Ski Classics growing,” Kim says shifting his focus on the pro tour. “But it’s really important for the pro teams to know whether the tour is going to be just classic or mixed with classic and skating. If skating remains in the mix, we’ll need to find specialists for that technique as well. I’m happy to see a skating race this season, but it would be good to know if this is only a one-off or a more permanent decision.”
It’s time to wrap up our chat and get ready for the holiday hoopla, and it is, therefore, adequate to ask what Kim wants for Christmas and what is his New Year’s resolution. To my surprise, his answer has nothing to do with skiing.
“I just want a peaceful Christmas with my family, and as a resolution, I’d like to be a better man and husband! And finally, I wish all Visma Ski Classics pro team and fans a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
*There were three pro teams from Finland last year and there are still some individuals in other teams in addition to Team Mäenpää – Heli Heiskanen, Vlatava Fund Ski Team, is the most successful Finnish skier so far, 6th in the overall results last season.