"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 fiancée 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.