By Teemu Virtanen
The year was 1917. It was the time of the Russian revolution, and the world was in turmoil as the World War I shattered humanity and peace on earth. In the midst of this chaos, the people of Finland bravely took steps towards a sovereign nation and walked away from the Russian regime. Today this nation celebrates its 102ndIndependence Day.
As it is a special day for Finland, it makes sense to honor the occasion with an interview with two of Finland’s best long distance skiers; Ari Luusua and Heli Heiskanen. They both represent Vltava Fund Ski Team from the Czech Republic, and Ari became the first Finn to be on the Visma Ski Classics podium last year when he finished 3rd at Jizerska 50 while Heli has been a solid performer for several years now; her best results are 4th at Jizerska 50 and 6th at Toblach-Cortina. They both are in Livigno, Italy, where they will stay until next Wednesday and prepare themselves for the upcoming La Venosta.
Let’s find out what they are up to and how they are spending this prestigious day. But before finding out that, we can start with their personal analysis on the season opening in Livigno.
“Both Pro Team Tempo and the individual race went well and in balance,” Ari says confidently. “Our results were ok, and the team was happy. It was really important for me to get a good start in a new team, and I think I succeeded as planned. Sports is always about results, and we are now ready for the next challenge.”
Heli is extremely satisfied with her high-altitude adaptation, which proceeded much better than in the previous years. However, she is not happy with her results in both races, but she acknowledges that her first races are always tricky, and the time difference between her and Britta Johansson Norgren, the winner, was not too much.
They both tell me that their dry-land training went well, and their focus has been on double-poling, especially for Ari as this is his first full season focusing on long distance and Visma Ski Classics. Heli also says that she increased her strength training and running hours.
When I ask them about their goals, they take a moment to ponder the question. For Ari, it is important to be able to race the whole season close to the top and perhaps repeat the Jizerska feat. Heli thinks that she should get closer to the best women of the game and step up a bit. For both of them, Ylläs-Levi is one of their favorite events in Visma Ski Classics, but naturally Jizerska 50 is very important as it is on their Pro Team’s home turf. Marcialonga and Vasaloppet seem to be the races that everyone holds in high esteem, and the same goes for both Ari and Heli.
Visma Ski Classics races has distances very different from the ones that Ari has done in the past, he says that long distance skiing is right in the core of endurance sports.
“One very crucial aspect is to recover well between races, then you need to stay healthy to avoid any breaks in your training. It is absolutely pivotal that you maintain your performance level throughout the long season. Naturally, you also need to have great skis, good service and proper energy intake during a race. Those are the ingredients for success in Visma Ski Classics.”
Heli is on the same page with her teammate and adds that a tactical eye enhances your chances to do well in a long race.
“It is important to position yourself perfectly so that you can be ready for attacks and breakaways. There are so many of those in our races. During the dry-land season, you have to make sure that your training load is in balance with your recovery time. And as Ari said, you need to pay attention to the time in-between races so that you can recover well and allow enough time for your nervous system to bounce back from the strains of hard racing. Then, you need to be healthy and eat well!”
As today is a day of celebration in Finland, we’ll finish this interview by asking how Ari and Heli are going to spend the Independence Day in Livigno.
“I will honor this occasion and have a sauna while here,” Ari says earnestly. “I will certainly watch the reception at the President’s Palace on YLE Areena. It means a lot to me and I will proudly carry our nation’s flag when racing.”
“I will spend the day skiing and enjoying the sun here in Italy,” Heli continues with a smile on her face. “But of course, the independence has a huge importance to me and to everyone in Finland. The farther away you are from home, the more you start appreciating it. To represent my country in these races here is a true honor to me.”