By Teemu Virtanen
It has been a long while since a Finnish skier won an international long distance skiing event. Pauli Siitonen was the fastest skier at Vasaloppet back in 1973.
Ari Luusua is a Finnish hope for the future. He was third at Jizerska Padesatka in 2019 and is now getting ready for Visma Ski Classics season XI. Luusua is looking for a new Pro Team, and his ultimate goal is to win Vasaloppet in the future.
Finland has always been one of the great nations in cross-country skiing. There have been many legends whose achievements are well remembered by the Nordic skiing community. Even today, Iivo Niskanen, Krista Pärmäkoski, and their countrymen and women fight for the podium places at the World Cup circuit, and they can surely be called the cream of the crop in cross-country skiing.
When it comes to long distance skiing, it has been a while since a Finnish skier has won a prestigious international event. Pauli Siitonen was the fastest skier at Vasaloppet in 1973, but that seems like a lifetime ago. In Visma Ski Classics, we have seen some great performances from Finnish athletes, but the only podium place was achieved by Ari Luusua in 2019 when he was third at Jizerska Padesatka.
For this season, Ari focused solely on long distance skiing, and he was a regular face in the fight for the top places, but the podium eluded him. His performances were very solid throughout the season ranging from 7th at La Diagonela to 22nd at Vasaloppet. He was among the top 12 skiers in every race except Vasaloppet and Marcialonga as he had to skip the latter event due to sickness.
Ari started skiing more seriously when he was 13, but his childhood idol was Kimi Räikkönen, the world-famous F1 driver from Finland. Besides skiing, he loves hunting and listening to podcasts. His favorite food is smoked salmon pasta and sautéed moose with mashed potatoes, and Peaky Blinders is his number one TV show.
In skiing, he has represented Finland at some World Cup events, and he has four medals at the Finnish Nationals. Ari respects the legends of Visma Ski Classics since they have paved the way for him and many other skiers to have a career in long distance skiing.
This winter, Ari represented Vltava Fund Ski Team from the Czech Republic, and before that he was a member of Team Mäenpää from Finland. Right now, Ari is getting ready for the upcoming season and looking for a new Pro Team, and his ultimate goal is to win Vasaloppet in the future.
“This season was very even,” Ari says without hesitation. “I didn’t really have a perfect race but no major disappointments either. I’m in a good position to start building up for the new season, and I have had so much time to ski since our season ended in mid-March. There’s been lots of snow in Lapland, and I’ve been able to ski through May. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed my plans quite a lot, and I don’t know yet what my options are for 2021.”
Ari knows that to be on the podium requires some extra skills, but he feels that he has a chance to repeat the feat again. He thinks that he needs to be stronger, harder, and faster. It may sound simple, but in reality, it requires a lot of work and dedication.
“It is much harder to be in a small team and fight against the best Pro Teams and their seasoned athletes,” Ari acknowledges bluntly. “It’s much like the biblical fight of David and Goliath, but we all know the end result of that. There are no national teams in Visma Ski Classics, which means that we fight for the one that pays our bills. Therefore, there’s not that much of the national mentality in long distance skiing. I know that there are not that many Finnish athletes in the lead group of our races, but I can see that there are more talented skiers coming from Finland and stepping into the arena.”
Ari has some concrete ideas on how to improve the culture of long distance skiing in his home country.
“We need a popular long distance roller-ski event in Finland where all the best skiers are present. It’s not enough that we have one Challengers event in Taivalkoski and one Pro Tour event, Ylläs-Levi. We need to expand the scope and get more people interested in the sport. It’s not a task for one skier or one Pro Team because we need a bigger exposure. We need the audience.”
In terms of training, Ari counts on building a strong endurance base. He trains a lot of hours, and he is known to be “a workhorse” who loves training long and hard, but his favorite workout is doing intervals on a treadmill. He believes that his training methods are not much different from the other top skiers in Visma Ski Classics. This dedicated athlete has certainly proved to be a serious contender, and it would come as no surprise to anyone if he is going to be seen standing on the podium more often when the new winter comes along.