This was becoming a new routine for me: I was again sitting in the front row with all the other local celebrities while I had previously been somewhere at the back – if I had been invited at all. I smiled at that thought and the people probably believed that I smiled because I was happy to be here. No luxury of anonymity anymore and I had only myself to blame. Now I was a hero, a celebrity - until the next one would come and replace me. It had been only a few months for me, but the end of this crap just couldn’t come too soon. I moved uneasily in my chair but forced myself to calm down. Yes, maybe I had only myself to blame, but there had been also some positive things that wouldn’t have happened unless there had been that raging urge that had brought me here. Besides, soon all this would be over. This celebration in my old home town was the last in the long list of events - and there was no way that I would have skipped this one!
I kept on smiling and looked around, nodding to several people I vaguely remembered from my past before turning to watch the leader of our national Ski Association and our national Nordic combined association – neither of them prevented him from being the leader of the local sports club – my sports club. Most likely he had some other titles I had no idea about. He was standing there on the stage smiling, waving to people and looking really smug. Next to him was another hometown hero, a former World Champion in ski jumping, my one-time ski jumping coach, looking equally satisfied. Most likely both of them honestly believed that they were the main reasons behind my success at the Olympics. Surprisingly – in a way – they were. But for now I sat back and smiled at them, as the multiplex leader cleared his throat and started his speech.
“Thank you! Thank you ALL for coming here! Before we say anything more, or ask OUR Mikko to come to the front here, let’s look again at the highlights of his achievements from the last Winter Olympics where WE sent him to represent OUR great sports club, and our country! Now, let’s go back in time for a few months!”
Just a few months! Such a short time. It was just a bit more than a year ago during the last spring, when I’d had my first winner’s podium position in the Nordic Combined World Cup games. At the beginning of last winter, I had been equally successful in my second World Cup games, clearly better than any of my fellow countrymen. However, when I had presented my idea to skip a few competitions and concentrate on being fit for the main event - the Olympics, our Nordic Combined association immediately denied me! Luckily, I got some help from one doctor who ‘ordered’ me to rest for a while. However, I still needed to risk my plans for success at the Olympics, and fly to two competitions on the other side of the world – and yet there were rumors of me being out of shape, and there were even ideas to leave me out of the Olympic team altogether. Even if I had more World Cup points than my team mates! But they sent me there - and I had done my job!
Soon the lights dimmed, and a video started. Those videos brought me back to those moments from last February. I had seen some highlights before, but this would be the first time I’d see this much of it. I was sure that it would be odd.
Even if I had been successful in some previous World Cup games, I wasn’t considered one of the main competitors in this first event of Nordic Combined. I had more World Cup points than my team mates, but for some reason I was still considered unproven, and probably the weakest of our team. Therefore, I was the last one in the jumping order. The second and third groups were considered as the hot ones as the teams expected the conditions to get poorer towards the end of the competition. After the draw, I found out that I would be the last one to jump.
It turned out that I was lucky in the sense that the conditions remained stable throughout the round. Since there were no expectations for us coming down in the last group of jumpers, I was able to jump without much pressure. Besides that, I didn’t even follow our team’s own flagman, who was supposed to be there to follow the wind. From the tower I was able to see the anemometer and I followed both it and the traffic lights. As soon as the light was off, I calculated a few seconds in my head and then I was off the bar.
As soon as I was in the air, I knew that I was doing great. I was able to get a stable position in the air almost immediately and after that, all I needed to do was to enjoy the flight and concentrate on a clean landing. When I stopped myself and waited for the length of the jump to be announced, I knew that I’d could win the whole race. When the skiing – or skate skiing – part started a few hours later, I started second, twelve seconds behind the race leader. The competitors I feared most would start thirty-six and forty-eight seconds behind me.
My skis worked almost perfectly, and I knew that I was in excellent condition. As a result, I had no problems in controlling the race from the start. After the first three kilometers I had already passed the former leader and I made sure that he dropped a few seconds behind me immediately. Since the ski trail consisted of one five kilometer loop, that was run twice and it remained close to the stadium, I was easily able to keep on eye of my toughest competitors. At the end there was no need to push and I was able to secure the gold medal with a ten second lead. I saw no need to push harder, I just made sure that I didn’t fall while going downhill. At the end of the race, I was almost surprised at how easily I had won the race. =====
When the first clip finished, there was brief applause after the final scenes of the award ceremony faded away. I stood up for a moment and waved my hand to the people - and remembered to smile. Then the clip from the next competition started, and once again I went back in time a few months.
You might believe that winning an Olympic gold medal would make you a hero inside your own team. Maybe that was true in some cases, but for sure, it didn’t happen to me! I asked to be moved to the third - or maybe to the second - group of jumpers, but in their wisdom our Olympic team leaders decided that I would jump in the first group. That way my example would raise the spirits of the other team members and scare my competitors. I overheard some discussions inside our team, which were about how lucky I had been. How I had been able to jump in better conditions than anyone else. How my skies had been better than theirs. Shit, I had spent almost the whole day before the first competition TESTING my pairs of skies together with my girlfriend who was one of the skiing competitors here. Which was another reason to complain - as she was a foreigner. From a different team - and I was probably there selling OUR secrets to them. Oh crap - I just ignored them and agreed to jump first. Like I had a choice.
While in the first competition we had jumped from the normal - K90 - hill, in this second competition, we would jump from the larger - K120 - hill. Since I had moved from ski jumping to this Nordic Combined, so this competition was usually the better one for me. Even if I was a bit too heavy and muscular to be a really good ski jumper, I was usually considered as one of the best jumpers in this Combined race. What had really changed during the last year, was that now I was much better skier than I had been before - thanks to my girlfriend and her father who had helped me tremendously - even if I had been a foreigner to them!
When it was my turn to jump, I once again ignored our own flag man and concentrated on the lights and the anemometer. I had an idea about how the wind was coming in bursts, and how the bursts seemed to circle around the stadium area. If I was able to time my start right, I might be able to ‘fly’ against the wind which would mean valuable extra meters. I needed to take into account the time getting to the mound was a bit longer on this larger hill, but I was quite sure that I had it right when I got going.
After my takeoff from the mound I could feel the air coming against me, and I wanted to laugh. I knew that I would be going far, probably further than I ever went during the practice. My jump was so long that I cheated a bit on my landing, just to make sure that I didn’t fall down. But as soon as I was past the falling line, I had my both fists in the air. Just try to stop me now!
I turned on my jumping skies and waited for the length of my jump and my points to appear. The length was one meter short of the record for that hill, which was almost unbelievable for the Combined competition. Then I waited for my total points, but nothing came out.
After some more time came a series of announcements, the last one - in broken English – came, announcing that because of my jump being too long, the whole round would be restarted. I wanted to scream. Didn’t the idiots know that I used to be a ski jumper? I was SUPPOSED to jump further than the others! Bastards! However, I knew that once the decision was made, it wouldn’t be reversed. So, most likely, I’d be the last man coming down from the tower again in this competition.
On my way back to the tower I had some time to think about it. During the first competition I had been almost a nobody; even after my good jump I hadn’t been the favorite. Now I was - and I knew that countries from which my toughest competitors came were also present in the jury. I took a deep breath and shook away such negative thoughts. The game wasn’t over yet. All I needed was another good jump – besides, lowering the bar would also shorten the jumps of my competitors.
Then, Lady Luck decided to slap me in my face. Hard. In the middle of the normally last, fourth group it started snowing. Not some light powder-like snow but heavy, wet flakes almost as big as hankies that immediately stuck in the ski trails coming down from the tower. Together with the lowered bar, it cut down the speed on the mound, shortening the jumps of the last competitors even more. This just wasn’t fair! Starting all over again also meant that the last of us would need to rush after the jumping, in order to get ready for the skiing part. Again, I forced myself to calm down. This unexpected snowfall would also mean that some of the competitors would be in trouble with their skies. I was quite sure that I had a pair that should work also with fresh, wet snow. Should work. I hadn’t been able to fully test them and there wouldn’t be much time between the events. No more of that – I needed a good jump first.
Finally, it was my turn to jump. Only they didn’t let me. Instead, the red light kept on burning and they asked me to get off the bar. All the time the snow kept on accumulating to the ski trails going down the hill. Once they asked me to get back to the bar I refused and pointed to the trails.
“I want a test jumper. Those trails need to be cleaned!”
The officer shook his head sadly.
“No test jumpers left. You jump, or quit.”
I turned to look back and noticed that he was right. Some of guys had fallen in the soft snow and the organizers had run out of test jumpers. Unbelievable. I knew that I could keep on complaining but that wouldn’t bring any new jumpers here and even more snow would fall to the trails. This time I was screwed, royally. When I finally was able to leave the bar I pushed back with my hands as much as I could. Like that would have helped, but I needed everything that might help. Everything that might give me more speed on the mound and a meter or two more. Everything. =====
In my youth I had decided to be a ski jumper - which wasn’t a hard decision since there had been a series of successful ski jumpers in my home town. The fact that there were a lot of hills to jump from didn’t hurt either. Back then I had practiced almost all my free time and jumped from all the available hills, small or big. Any size, any shape - and for a while in my youth it looked like I could make it to the top. Then, all of a sudden I got a second growth spurt, and suddenly I was ten centimeters taller - which wasn’t so bad - and ten kilograms heavier - which was. Almost none of it was fat, just muscle - but from a ski jumping point of view, the muscle was partly at the wrong end of my body and suddenly in my late teens I had a serious disadvantage when compared to my slimmer competitors. It took me a year to get over it, and start using that transformation to my advantage in this Nordic Combined.
However, all those years of ski jumping had taught me an important lesson regarding a successful jump. There’s no time to think about it. Absolutely. No. Time.
If you start thinking, you’ll be late with your takeoff, and you’ll fail. That particular day, I somehow managed not to think, since I really don’t remember anything about that jump. Only the fact that I needed to fly as far as possible. So, I was probably as fascinated as the rest of the audience when I looked at myself jumping.
I had seen enough jump videos in my life to understand that my takeoff had been close to perfect, considering the circumstances. I heard the national commentators when they decried my speed, which was more than one kilometer per hour lower than the ones of my competitors, because of the snow. That alone was bad - but the lack of wind coming against me was even worse. This wasn’t the first time I saw my jump from the screen, but still I was hooked on it. It wasn’t because the jump was so good - it WAS almost perfect in those conditions - I kept on looking at the jump because I was able to see how close to the limit I had been able to push it. The only way I was able to keep myself steady in the air was because the conditions were steady, yet all the time I seemed to be pushing it too far. During my time in the air, my body was so low between my skies that I couldn’t help wondering myself how I had been able to do it. At the end, the backs of my skies were already touching the ground when I moved myself to the landing position. Somehow, I was able to remain standing.
Afterwards, there were some calculations that claimed that I had been able to push my flight almost five meters further than should have been possible. I just remembered thinking that I needed every one of those meters. The only reason why I had been doing it was because there was that urge to succeed. To be something more than a one-time champion. I shook my head when I thought about it now. Pushing to the limit when you are flying in the air at one hundred kilometers per hour wasn’t probably the smartest thing to do when I thought about it afterwards. I saw myself slow down my speed and turn around in the big screen, and then the memories caught me again.
When I turned and stopped for the second time and waited to see the length of my jump and my points, there was no celebration. I had no idea where I would be before the skiing started since I hadn’t been following the other competitors but just concentrated on doing my best. I didn’t really care about the length of my jump or my total points - I just wanted to know where I stood when compared to the others.
Finally, the standings after the jumping were shown on the big screen: Eighteen points, one minute and forty eight seconds behind the leading guy - knowing his skills on skis, I knew that I would be able to pass him. What worried me was that two of my toughest competitors were also there in front of me: fourteen and twelve points - which meant one minute and twenty-four and one minute and twelve seconds. I closed my eyes for second and took a deep breath - then a second one. I could do it. No, I WOULD do it. This was what I had been prepared to do. All the things I had been doing during the last year had prepared me for THESE events. =====
The presentation on the screen changed to the short speculation from the commentators, who considered that my chances of repeating my success were – nil. For a moment they pitied my bad luck but then they concentrated on the possibilities of my team mate. He would start from fifth place, and he was considered to be a decent skier – occasionally. Of course, they had no ideas about the discussions and arguments I had had to go through while I should have been concentrating on the skiing part. I forced those thoughts out of my head when I started following the skiing part on the screen. In the beginning of that race I was seen on the screen only occasionally since I was considered to be much too far behind to be someone who could fight to win the event.
Throughout my career in this Nordic Combined, I had always been considered as a jumper, not a skier. That was how it had been for a few years. It was about a year ago when things started to change, and I was quite sure that I had shown my full potential as a skier. The World Cup games had been the ones where I had been practicing and testing my limits, my strengths and weaknesses. Never before I had pushed myself to my limit while skiing. Now I was sure that I’d need to do that.
When I started sports, I had always tried to be a smart, analytical competitor. Now I knew that there were almost twenty guys between me and the leader. Almost twenty guys I needed to pass, in order to win again. Some of them were good skiers, some of them moderate and some of them - well, not that good. I knew that when I started pursuing the leaders there would be some guys who’d try to hang on my back and benefit from the work I would be doing, maybe all the way to the end of the race. I really didn’t want to trust my sprinting abilities at the end of the race. However, there was always that possibility, and I had also studied the final straight.
Because the jumping had taken more time than actually planned, I really didn’t have much time to feel sorry for myself. Those few interruptions had cut down the time even more. Soon I was there on the line, waiting for my turn. Once I was on my way I just concentrated on my own skiing, keeping my technique solid and passing as many skiers in front of me as effortlessly as possible.
The snowing had continued once it had started, but now it was working to my benefit, since the first guys on the track were slowed down a bit because of the fresh snow. Okay, the fresh snow also made the track softer and if I had started a bit further back it would have slowed me down, too. Now – especially after passing the first few competitors, I was the one who benefited from the weather. Probably not much, maybe a few seconds per five kilometer round; but, at the end, everything might count.
While learning to ski better and faster, my coach and I together had been seriously thinking what parts of my skiing needed to be improved most. Which parts would give me the best possibilities to succeed. We had analyzed my events and even the ones I hadn’t taken a part in and both analyses showed the same result. If I concentrated on being better on the flat ground I’d become ten to fifteen seconds faster in ten kilometer competition. Not bad, really. There wasn’t anything to gain from the times I was going downhill - in fact, I already was damned good at it. What shocked me was the fact if I learned to go uphill better, I could be more than one minute faster in ten kilometers. The real benefit depended on the track and conditions. The rougher the track and the worse the conditions, the better I would be. This track was only moderate, but the conditions were bad, really bad. I didn’t actively think about those things while I was skate-skiing, but I was aware of them. =====
It wasn’t until the middle of the race when the camera man started really picking me up on the screen. By that time I had risen from the eighteenth place to the sixth and I was leading a long train of fellow competitors. The problem was that the toughest and the best of them were still ahead of me and some guys behind me were probably better sprinters than I was. The commentators were also aware of that fact and even if they were astonished because of my performance so far they still didn’t trust my ability to get to the podium. However, they hoped that I’d help my team mate to get there!
When I made that 180 degree turn in the half-way I was able to see the train of guys following me, and two of them were my own team mates. None of them had been willing to help me in this chase, but they had been happy to follow me. I took a quick look on the big screen on the stadium where I could see the situation. Thirty-eight seconds behind the leading guy, thirty-one seconds behind those two guys I considered to be the toughest ones to beat. They had probably taken the lead already, since that seven second gap wasn’t that much. By now they probably were aware that I was closing on them; but they probably believed that half a minute was a big enough lead, since I wasn’t considered to be that good at skiing. They probably also believed that I’d be exhausted after my fast start, while they had been holding s steady pace, catching the guys in front of them steadily, one by one. I hoped that they weren’t really that afraid of me.
There was a long, steepening uphill coming as soon as we left the stadium. It had been on that same uphill in the first round when I had been able pass most of the guys who were now behind me. I knew that now I had to do even better.
I took a short sprint just before that uphill just to make sure that there was nobody right on my tails when I started my rise. That uphill started gradually, and most of the skiers were able to use ‘Wassberg’ in the beginning, pushing with both hands on each stride. Then there is a short steeper part where the style usually changed to one where the only push is done in every second stride. That’s a bit slower way but usually used in steeper hills and rough conditions. I kept on pushing on each stride, going with my ‘Wassberg’ technique, all the way to the top.
At the top of the hill I had almost caught the guys who were the third and fourth in the competition. The guy who was third was the one who had been the leader at the half-way and one look at him told me that most likely he’d be outside the top ten at the finish line. There was a short downhill part at the end of the climb and for a moment I was able to piggyback the guy who was now third. We both were also able to see the leading duo in front of us. The only problem was that even if I was piggybacking I wasn’t getting any closer. So, as soon as I had the possibility, I used my higher speed and moved to the side just before a small uphill during which I passed him. I was now running third. By keeping this position I’d be on the podium again!
Now also, those two leaders were aware that I was approaching them. The only problem was that there was only one real uphill left before the finish at the stadium. Now we all were speeding on flat ground where it was difficult to be much faster than the others. =====
While improving my skiing technique I also made some effort to improve my ‘Mogren’ – skate-skiing with double pole plant followed by two strides – and skating without poles. Previously my problem had been the power and the endurance of my upper body and concentrating in ‘not overdoing’ – I needed to remember to take the full use of the slide. I knew that I was now better than I had been – but I had had no idea if I was good enough. I had never needed to push myself that much before. Now, afterwards, when I looked at the screen I noticed that the leading duo had been constantly taking looks behind their back.
I didn’t cast looks at the leading duo, mainly because I was so focused on keeping the balance in my technique. The only way to notice my improved speed was that I had started to skate without my poles. Even if I didn’t actively keep on eye of the leaders I was aware that they were still using their poles. I didn’t change my style but just kept on going. I had no idea what was happening behind me, I only knew that I needed to catch the leading duo at the last uphill part if I wanted my second win. No – because I wanted my second win.
When the last, curving uphill part started, I was still some seconds behind the leading duo, who also were pushing as fast as they could. I had no idea about how exhausted they were - hell, I knew that I was exhausted, but I also knew that I’d keep on going as long as I could. When the last uphill steepened, I kept on going Wassberg. I probably had never used Wassberg in a hill that steep. Not even in practice.
At the top of the hill I was sure that I was going to die. I was still four to five meters behind the leaders, but I had a better momentum when the downhill started. I pushed myself with all the speed I could before taking the egg-shaped position and letting go. When we came down to the stadium and in front of the people, I could SENSE the yell coming from the crowd. I didn’t really hear it, since all my attention was on the backs of the two guys just in front of me.
Normally, the competitor who becomes the first to reach the finishing straight, takes the shortest way, the first line. The downside of that is that you also need to turn tighter, which eats up your speed, so sometimes the second line is a better option. The first guy took the second line. The guy behind him had taken the last curve slightly wider and he was able to take the first line without any problems. I was the third coming to the finishing straight, immediately behind them. I had the third and fourth lines to choose from.
I had one slight advantage. Being behind the two of them, I had been coming slightly faster, and by taking the outside line I was able to hold my speed better than either of them. However, it didn’t change the fact that I was still behind them. Luckily there was one more thing working for my benefit. It had been snowing throughout the competition, and the wind had also started after the jumping was finished. Even if the organizers made some effort to keep the skiing area in decent condition — some snow kept on accumulating there – and for some reason there was less snow on line four than there was on lines one or two.
At the half-way mark of the finishing straight, I was sure that I would win the race since I was half a ski length ahead of my competitors. Ten meters before the finish line, there was a moment when I was afraid that I was not going to make it, as my muscles almost refused to co-operate. I made it. By one meter. Fractions of a second. But I made it! I was now a two-time Olympic Champion! =====
The video continued with the award ceremony, during which I got my second Gold Medal. I was a bit surprised that the video didn’t end there. Damn, they were going to show the team competition. I wasn’t too thrilled about that, but I probably should have guessed it, as two out of three team members were also in the crowd. The screen started to show the jumping part of the team event, but my thoughts went back to the moments before that team race.
With my second win and especially because of my performance, I NOW was a hero, without question. The leaders of our team weren’t really thrilled because of that, since they didn’t really see me as a ‘team player’. Of course, they were happy because of the success of the team, but even I was able to see that they would have liked somebody other than me to be the winner. But none of them had had the same kind of urge to win as I’d had.