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 Hämäläinen 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 Hämäläinen 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.