When Jonne Kähkönen was hired to be the women’s national team coach by the US Biathlon Association (USBA) in 2010, there wasn’t much of a playbook to follow.
The Finn couldn’t mimic the footsteps of his predecessor, because there wasn’t one.
For the first time, the women’s team was going to have a coach of their own.
“The men’s program was on a really high level going into Vancouver [2010 Olympics],” USBA Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler – then the high-performance director – said on the phone this weekend. “It was a deep program and the men’s relay was having pretty good potential. And we saw the women coming up having the same potential to go up to the top as well.
“We knew that if we wanted to build up a strong women’s program, we needed to have a dedicated coach for them,” he explained. “Really just focused on their development, and putting the group together to make it a really good environment.”
Enter Kähkönen, who had spent the previous four years as the head coach of the Finnish biathlon team.
“Obviously the first quad [four-year Olympic cycle] felt like it went by really quick, because everything was new,” Kähkönen said in a phone interview last week. “I think looking back, we made really good decisions overall with the philosophy of the team for both the men and the women. Especially for the women, in the early years, to get them up to speed, to be competitive. And it was successful already after the first couple years.”
In 2009, the U.S. women were ranked 20th in the World Cup’s Nations Cup standings. Eight years later, they have had numerous top-20 performances from multiple athletes, World Youth and Junior Championships flower ceremonies, and World Cup podiums and a World Championships silver medal by Susan Dunklee.
“When we started, we didn’t think we were capable of that,” Eisenbichler said. “We saw the potential, but to win a silver medal with Susan, to have these multiple top 20’s by six or seven different athletes, I think we can be really happy with what the women’s program has looked like the last eight years and where we are right now.”
And after leading that charge for eight years, Kähkönen is leaving the team to take back his role as the head coach for Finland – a program that has also risen in that period, with Kaisa Mäkäräinen winning three overall World Cup titles, Mari Laukkanen scoring two World Cup victories, and the mixed relay team finishing sixth at the 2018 Olympics.
“It has been a process,” Kähkönen said of the transition. “I definitely have been thinking of each quad [cycle] as a project. At the end of the project it is always good to evaluate and think about the next steps and what’s good for me professionally, but then I want what’s best for the team and the athletes also. And I feel like now with the few retirements, it’s probably good in a way to make the changes now.”
“I think that the women need a new stimulus,” Eisenbichler said. “Not that the old stimulus wasn’t good or wasn’t working anymore, but after eight years it’s normal. And Jonne and I see that the same way. I could not be more thankful and grateful to Jonne. And now it’s time for him to have a new era with the Finnish biathlon association.”
The Fun-Loving Finn
“I think that having a women’s coach changed something in the heart of the women’s team, because it felt like a validation that we were improving and deserved someone that was there specifically for us,” 2014 Olympian and five-time World Championships competitor Annelies Cook, who retired in 2016, wrote in an email last week.
“Personally, I am really grateful that I had Jonne as a coach,” she continued. “Jonne was there in my life through many big changes and I could always talk to him and I always felt supported by him. He was always positive for us, and that is something you really need in a sport that can really get you down sometimes. Biathlon is different from cross-country skiing in where the differences in performances from day to day don’t change that drastically. Biathlon can change instantly from good to bad, and that can be really emotional sometimes.”
Kähkönen said that he learned a lot in his years of coaching in the U.S., not least from the athletes and the team’s international staff, who hail from Sweden, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany.
“It makes me think what works and what doesn’t work, and also to take that into account working with the athletes,” he said.
But what he learned the most was to have fun.
“I know that having fun seems dangerous to say [in a serious environment],” he said. “It’s not only about having fun, but enjoying your work and enjoying what you’re doing — I think that’s more descriptive. But, at times, having fun as well!”
Case in point: in 2012 at World Championships, Kähkönen dyed his hair purple. He had told the team that if any of the women finished in the top 10, he’d do it. Susan Dunklee placed fifth in the 15 k individual. So purple it was.
“I think those types of things are important, whatever it is, just to try to lighten it up a little,” he said. “Me being Finnish, people say that I’m not a typical Finn. I’m more open or more lively or whatever.”
Quite apart from the hair, Dunklee’s fifth-place finish in Ruhpolding was one of Kähkönen’s favorite moments from his tenure with the team. At the time, he was midway through his second winter leading the women’s squad, and Dunklee had competed in just two weekends of World Cup racing.
“Probably one of the most exciting moments was Susan’s first breakthrough at Ruhpolding World Champs in that individual,” Kähkönen reminisced. “She had the lead for a good while, and her being really surprised by it. That was definitely, maybe not the start of it all, but one of the very good results that we had early on.”
The previous year, Sara Studebaker and Laura Spector had broken into the top 20 on the World Cup, and Haley Johnson had been close in 21st. One year later, Cook made her own jump into the land of top-20’s. And later still, Hannah Dreissigacker and then Clare Egan would hit the top 20, along with Dunklee’s four World Cup podiums and her World Championships silver medal.
“Obviously after all the hard work, all the medals, Tim [Burke] in Nove Mesto and then Susan and Lowell [Bailey] in Hochfilzen last year, those are on top of the list,” Kähkönen said.
Back to Finland
Kähkönen hesitated to say that he was headed for home.
“It may be a cliché to say that home is where your heart is, but Lake Placid has been my home,” he said. “I’ve said this to a couple of people, but it hasn’t hit me yet because I’m still here. It has been great. The community is so supportive. There are great people there and we made good friends. So it will be tough to leave when that day comes.”
The family will move this summer, after his oldest son graduates from high school in June.
But it is an interesting assignment for Kähkönen to retake the reins of a program that has changed a lot since he last worked there.
“With Kaisa [Mäkäräinen] being the star, it is exciting to go back and work with her, if she decides to continue [racing], which remains to be seen,” he said of an athlete who had five podiums the last time he worked with the team, but now owns 23 international wins and 54 more podiums. “We worked together in the past, so it will be fun to be reunited.”
But the other pieces of Finland’s biathlon puzzle are no less compelling.
“At the same time, I think as big a part of it is seeing the rise of the next generation,” Kähkönen said. “They won a couple medals at the junior level. It’s not just the juniors and youth who won the medals, but even behind them, there are just more people doing biathlon now, which is good to see. And just seeing the good results that the men’s team is starting to post on the World Cup now. That’s inspiring to me.”
And in the end, the fun is one thing that he hopes to bring back to Finland.
“I just read in one of the Finnish papers today, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, who is part of the cross-country team — she has trained a bunch with Kikkan Randall and the U.S. women — she made a comment that what she was missing a little bit in the last couple of years was having this sort of North American type of relaxed and having fun atmosphere while doing the work that everyone is committed to.”