Canada's nordic combined team gets boost from unlikely ally

In desperate need of more resources and a better training environment, Canada's nordic combined team has turned to Finland, where the locals have embraced the visitors with generous enthusiasm.

Finnish company, community members get behind Canadian team

Canadian head coach Jouni Kahkonen has worked hard to find his athletes the support they need. (Federation Internationale de Ski)

The relationship between Canada's nordic combined team and its Finnish sponsors started with rye bread.

It now includes training, transportation, equipment — even a coach. And it's providing Canada's nordic combined athletes, who must master ski jumping and cross-country skiing, opportunities they can't find at home. 

The overhaul of the Canadian nordic combined team began with a conversation rooted in a staple Finnish grain.

Riikka Salokannel, the wife of Canada's ski jumping and nordic combined head coach Jouni Kähkönen, was trying to pitch her husband's Canadian athletes to a Finnish CEO whose grain company had once sponsored a ski jumper.

It was a perfect fit, Salokannel explained. Canadian ski jumper Wesley Savill was always asking Salokannel to bring him back Finnish rye bread. The CEO listened, then respectively declined.

It may not have been the answer Salokannel was looking for, but it was the beginning of an international plan to bring Canada's nordic combined team to the 2017 world championships in Lahti, Finland.

Nordic combined is one of three winter sports in which Canada has never won an Olympic medal. Its best finish ever was achieved by Jostein Nordmore, who placed 10th at the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY.

However, since becoming head coach in February 2015, Kähkönen has changed Team Canada's approach by bringing his athletes to train and network in Finland, a country that has the infrastructure, resources and interest to nurture nordic combined athletes. 

Like Cool Runnings

From wind-tunnel testing to equipment, transport and accommodations, Finnish businesses and community members are contributing time and resources to help the Canadians out. Training in Finland has reinvigorated Kähkönen's athletes, giving them opportunities that simply don't exist in Canada.

Finnish media outlets have also taken interest in the Canadian story. One of them, Topline Media, is even following the team and documenting its training experiences on social media.

"We thought their determination was so strong and the story of an underdog team was so compelling that we wanted to be a part of it," said Topline Media concept designer Erja Hakkarainen. "It is just a great story, slightly related to Cool Runnings [the 1993 film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team]."

​The team's reception in Finland is a stark contrast to its experience training in Canada.

Team member Nathaniel Mah said there were times the team had no coach, no real plan, and athletes coming and going.

Mah even relocated to the United States in 2013 to could train with its national team before Kähkönen showed up with a four-year plan, new sponsors and a structured program.  

"When Jouni came in, I was kind of at a point where I wasn't sure I wanted to continue on with the sport," said Mah. "In the Canadian Sport Institute, [nordic combined] is not even recognized as a sport that can get carding." 

That means Mah could win a World Cup event next season and not receive funding from Own the Podium.

"It's a little upsetting, but I'm glad there are other countries that are willing to support us even though we don't bear the same flag," Mah said.

The team is back on Canadian soil this weekend, competing at the national championships in Calgary. The athletes will then head back to base camp in Finland to continue training toward their goal, the world championships in 2017.

"We will make history if we have the whole and healthy team ready to compete," said Kähkönen. "But now that I've seen their progress, motivation and commitment, I might get even more hungry for some good results."


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