“To Ski As Fast As Possible”: An Interview With Finnish Coach Magnar Dalen

Topher SabotFebruary 12, 2010

As far as coaching goes, Magnar Dalen has been around the block. Formerly the head coach of the Swedish team and head wax tech for the Norwegians, Dalen has been in charge of the Finnish program for the last four years.

When Dalen took over Finland’s team in 2006, the women were already strong, with Virpi Kuitunen and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen finishing sixth and 12th in the World Cup overall the year before. But the men’s program was suffering—their best finisher was Sami Jauhojarvi, in 44th. By last year, though, they had four women in the top-ten, with Jauhojarvi in fifth. The program seems to work.

We sat down with Dalen for an interview at Silver Star Resort, where part of his team was preparing during the last week before the Olympics, to talk about training and development, doping, and the Games.

FasterSkier: Can you start out by giving us a sense of your team’s travel and preparation for the last month leading into the Olympics?

Magnar Dalen: It actually started directly after the Tour de Ski, because that was like one of the big targets for the season. After that weekend we had some athletes that were very tired…like Matti Heikkinen and Sami Jauhojarvi, so they didn’t ski the next World Cup race in Otepaa. After Otepaa there were the Finnish championships, in an extremely cold period, so that was disturbing a little bit. We had many days with temperatures at -20, -30 degrees, so it was quite difficult to do really hard training and intervals training. That was the only stone on the road so far.

Everybody has had good pre-camps, and the team is healthy—we don’t have any sickness at the moment, and we hope that it can stay that way until the Olympics.

FS: Do you feel like you give up anything by racing the Tour de Ski?

MD: No. It’s just like—you need some very hard training periods during the competition season, and that was for many of our athletes a well-planned peak of very hard training. We used it not only as a competition; we used it also as a part of trying to be in the best possible shape for the Olympics.

FS: And in terms of the kind of training you guys have been doing in Silver Star over the last two weeks?

MD: It’s very individual—what each athlete needs according to where they are in that curve that hopefully is leading to the peak. So some need to push very hard and some need to take it very, very easy. And we have had pre-camps in three different places. We are using Silver Star for those high altitude-positive persons that normally deliver their best results after a high-altitude training camp, and also who have their focus on the start of the Olympics. And then we have a second group that has stayed in high altitude or medium-high altitude in Middle Europe—they are not focused on peaking in the beginning of the Championships. Their peak is meant to come later, at the end of the Championships. And then we have those that are sprinters, or those who are most homesick—they are kept at home in Finland and travel directly to Whistler. So it’s the three-way system.

FS: Is that a challenge, managing the training for all the athletes in three different places?

MD: First you have to think about what would happen during a five-week stay in a big group. I know that the last week, people will get mentally very tired—they are starting to miss home. Even if everybody on the team is good friends, there are always some irritating things inside the group. So that’s why I did it that way—I wanted to split them, and then it’s very fun for everybody to meet in Whistler. Then they have two weeks together and everybody will talk about what they have done in Silver Star, and what they have done in Ramsau and Toblach, so then they have a good starting point. Hopefully that will last for the whole period.

Finland's Ville Nousiainen racing at the Canmore World Cup.
Finland's Ville Nousiainen racing at the Canmore World Cup. (Coach pictured is not Dalen.)

FS: Do you worry about not having a final measuring stick like the Canmore World Cup?

MD: To be worried, that’s a part of our work—you’re worried all the time (laughs). But when you have adult skiers that you know quite well, then telephone and internet and mail and so on is good enough. Mainly it is that the results you’re having at the Olympics are normally the results of what you’ve done for a whole year, especially the last eight months of your training season. And then these two, three last weeks—that’s mostly to stay on the high way, and not make things complicated.

…Then Look at the Results List

FS: Can you talk about your goals for the team at the Olympics?

MD: That’s very easy. It’s to ski as fast as possible, then look at the results list after, and find out how good it was (laughs).

FS: So you don’t have any objective goals for the Games?

MD: Nope.

FS: Do the athletes feel the same way?

MD: No, of course, they want their personal goals and their dreams like everybody does. But no medals are won by speaking before the races. They are delivered after the skiing.

FS: How many athletes do you have [for the Games]?

MD: 17. We are not using all the spots, but that’s the number of athletes we have that we have some kind of hope that they can deliver some top results.

FS: Have you decided who will race each of the races?

MD: For the beginning, that is decided, but then it’s played out depending on the results they are delivering. The relay team—that will be ready after the sprint relay team.

FS: Is it nice being able to prepare here, away from the intense pressure in Finland?

MD: That’s very good. It’s one of the biggest benefits you can have—you can stay quite quiet, and everybody can live their whole lives and have some recovery. We know that when we’re arriving at the Olympic Village, then a lot of stress is coming.

FS: How do you manage all of that attention?

MD: With media we make very clear rules—what times we will have press conferences, when different kinds of information will be delivered. Then we have special places in the stadium where athletes and journalists can meet, and they have to book these different times. So it’s kind of run like a factory.

FS: Having experienced this with Sweden and with Norway, is the pressure as intense for Finland?

MD: Oh, Norway is very special. The interest is enormous. So it’s kind of—they are in a little bit of a special situation with that.

FS: Maybe that gives you guys a bit of an advantage?

MD: Well, on the other side, it’s like, all things with the media and so on are giving a benefit to your national team. The Norwegians have so much experience—they are used to handling it. I don’t feel like that’s adding extra pressure to them—it’s more that they just have to use more time to do the planning and so on.

Scandinavia in Context

FS: We were wondering if we could talk a little bit about the differences between the Scandinavian countries. You’ve coached so many different elite level national programs—could you draw some comparisons between the cultures?

MD: The top skiers who are fighting for medals—if they are coming from Norway, Sweden, or Finland—it’s very similar. The kind of training they are doing, the kind of self-confidence they have, and so on, so that’s not very big. I think if you look into—maybe the Eastern European countries—then you can talk about a very different culture, how everything is organized. But Europe or Canada and maybe the U.S. team—I think it’s quite similar.

FS: In terms of the different development systems—is that true too?

MD: Yeah—the development system. What can I say about that? In one way, it can be many good things coming from that side, but on the other side, it can also be a little bit too complicated. If there is too much detail, it can be a blocked system. So I personally look very much for the individual athlete, and try to prepare them to make their own decisions and trust their own capacity, and work with the weak sites. That’s the most important. Many times I’ve said, “try to find your three weakest points.” It can be double-poling or diagonal technique or downhill, or whatever. Work with the three weakest points and try to make your strongest points stronger. Then you have a good working system.

FS: And whether you’re from Norway, Sweden or Finland, everyone’s going to have those three weaknesses?

MD: I think that’s like—almost all top skiers in the world have learned a new way of double poling technique, which has changed very much during the last ten years. Now there are maybe more things happening in skating techniques, like everybody is getting better at closing their legs when they are putting their skis down to the snow, instead of being open and wide. So still, the most important is to have a strong engine and a very strong head, combined with a tolerance of a lot of pain.

FS: And the way that the athletes respond to the coaching and the feedback that they’re getting, there’s not really very much difference in the culture and the way that works between the three Scandinavian countries?

MD: No—in all countries you have those athletes who have a lot of self-confidence and can make all their own decisions. You also always have some athletes that more or less need the timetable for when they should brush their teeth (laughs).

Skiing and School—“This Balance Thing”

FS: We know the club system is very strong in Norway—is it similar in Finland? Is that how a lot of your younger skiers come up?

MD: Yeah—that’s the base, the local ski club in your local area. There is normally some older man or woman who is fascinated with cross country skiing, and they try to organize trainings two or three or four times a week. People are meeting and they are working in that group and trying to have fun together. And out of that group grows someone that finds out that, “wow, I really like this sport, and I want to put more into it,” and then they are maybe moving to a bigger ski club, or normally they have to go to a ski gymnasium system. Then they are getting in contact with professional coaches and so on.

But I feel that most of the athletes—Norway, Sweden, and Finland—even when they are up at the highest level, they still have a good contact down to their starting point.

FS: Are the skiers just below the national team level—are they very well supported by their local clubs, or their ski gymnasiums?

MD: That’s the main problem in Finland, to make the economics good enough. To have the possibility of training full time is very difficult.

FS: Compared to Norway, for example?

MD: It’s very difficult to get private sponsors at a level that you can go all in for cross country skiing.

FS: So once you get to the highest level, it works well, but if you’re just below…

MD: It’s very hard. And you have to—nowadays you need to have a kind of education to have a normal standard of life after your career. And if you go thirty, forty years back, you could go skiing and then you could work with your body in the forest, or that type of thing—when you stop skiing you immediately could start to work. But nowadays it’s not working that way, so there are many athletes who have a hard time with, “should I [ski], or should I continue harder with the studies?” There’s all the time this balance thing.

FS: Does anyone try to do both—school and study, and race?

MD: Then you’re coming to the individuals again. There are different skiers—some have the possibility to give the body good training and still they can work with hard studies and get to a very high level of studying, like Anders Soedergren. There are some that are very well educated during the time that they are doing their top skiing. But some are putting everything for top skiing, and if they don’t succeed with their career, they have to start with a lower rank out in normal life.

FS: Is that something that’s part of your role as the head coach—to try to remedy that?

MD: No—I feel that when they come up to my level, then they are professional skiers. And you do have personal meetings with the athletes, and especially those that haven’t succeeded, and the things that they are worried about for the future are coming up. They don’t know if they will take the risk to continue with cross country skiing for two more years—they maybe will start to study and ski. When I have that on the table, I know that the chance of getting to the top in cross country skiing is getting very small.

FS: It seems like it’s a subtle difference, but in Norway, there are more opportunities later in life for people who choose skiing as their career? Do you agree?

MD: Cross country skiing is enormously popular in Norway. You are getting a lot of support from clubs and from areas and from the National Team and so on. So they have the best system at the moment to care for and make the possibility for many skiers to concentrate on skiing. But that’s very good work that they have done for many years. They are getting the apples down…

FS: So then do you think for a country like Finland, or a country like the United States, where there isn’t that much public support or very many opportunities after skiing for their skiers—do you there is a way to ever build programs that will be able to compete with Norway, in terms of their numbers?

MD: Not in the numbers of top skiers. But even if you are from Kenya you still have the possibility to be the best skier in the world. You just have to be very motivated and you have to go all in, if you use the poker language. And if you think that everybody else has better possibilities than you, you will always be a loser. You have to think that it’s the body and the brain and the tolerance of pain, and then of course you have to work with technique and train on the right terrain, and so on. But that is what is good in sport—that it is possible to reach medal level if you have strong enough motivation.

Riika Sarasoja (FIN) in Canmore
Riika Sarasoja (FIN) in Canmore

FS: It’s just maybe a more lonely pursuit.

MD: Yeah, but that’s also, for some athletes, the right way. They are that kind of social person who has a better chance for success if they do it alone. For others it can be that the group is taking their energy. We are seeing many examples of that—athletes coming from the outside and coming up to a high level, and then they go into a team and get everything prepared for them, and they are not climbing any more. It’s like going out—because everything is served.

FS: So maybe here, it’s a different kind of person and a different kind of athlete that would be successful, compared to someone in Norway.

MD: Yup. If you look at [Justyna] Kowalczyk on the ladies side, she is coming from a not cross country country, but I am sure that she has enormous motivation to try to get to the top of the world, and she is there today.

FS: You’ve been around the sport for a while, and in the past 10, 15 years the American program has been coming up. We were wondering if you had been able to observe them at all over that period, and what you could say about the improvements that they’ve made?

MD: That’s difficult for me. I just noticed that Kris Freeman is a very strong skier, and he is one of those twenty, thirty men skiers that have a possibility to make a medal in Vancouver. Behind him, I don’t have a very good picture. Kikkan was very good in sprint skating, short tracks. Newell—a little bit down for him this year compared to earlier—let’s hope he can do it in the Olympics. Torin Koos—that was a surprise in Canmore.

Eating the Fish

FS: We were doing some research—in your contract, we read that you have a clause that states you can resign at any point if Finland is involved in a doping scandal. Is that correct?

MD: Yes. And also if I should be involved or have knowledge of any of my skiers using illegal things, I have to pay 50,000 euros.

FS: Is that something that the national federation set up, or that both parties wanted?

MD: Well, I didn’t set up that I wanted to pay… (laughs).

FS: Because we know that Finland has had a couple of controversies in the past. We know in Norway they have a very strong anti-doping culture—we’re wondering if there’s anything you can tell us about those differences. Because it seems like then with Russia, it’s something that’s more acceptable—it seems to be a bigger issue. How does Finland fit in?

MD: That’s a very big subject to go inside, and you need to know how these different systems are working. So what many times we may be complaining about in Russia is that we see this athlete using this and this. We have to understand that the athlete’s opinion or the athlete’s wish is zero in those countries. If they say that today there are two dishes, fish and meat, and the coach says, “today you eat fish,” then you eat fish. If you try to take the meat, then you are off the team. It’s exactly the same. If they say that “this is vitamin C,” then you take vitamin C, and you don’t ask if it’s really vitamin C.

FS: So then in Finland, what is the public’s opinion on these kinds of issues?

MD: I think they are doing things correct from the federation and from the government, and from Finnish sports overall. They are putting in place very hard rules and also giving out punishments if somebody is not playing inside the paper.

FS: So in addition to FIS and WADA, the federation also is part of this?

MD: Then we have to also recognize that the Finnish federation has now been totally switched around. So actually the cross country is out of the federation, and made its own new federation—that has been on the way for two years, but it was finalized five months ago. We built everything again from the economics, to the marketing, to the sponsors, competitions. Instead of being in a big, big organization, it’s separated out, and we have more control over our economics. I got my budget for next season, and I know that it’s 437,000 euros, and that is what I have.

FS: As a Norwegian, you’ve worked now in Sweden and Finland—are there any kind of loyalty issues there?

MD: No. It has changed so much in the last ten years. Ten years ago it was like, everybody was working in their own country. But then people started working here and there, and now it’s like an international business life, like, “okay, we need a wax man.” “Okay, we’ll grab that one from Sweden.” Or, “okay, we need a physio,” and the Italians grab that from Finland, and a coach moves like this, too. So the whole system is very open.

FS: What do you think is driving those changes?

MD: It’s a kind of picture of the whole world—that everything is getting internationalized.

FS: Globalization?

MD: Yeah, globalization.

FS: Lastly—we spoke with Justyna Kowalczyk in Canmore, and she said that she was training five to six hours a day and 1200 hours a year. What is the range that the Finnish athletes are training in terms of volume?

MD: It’s between 700 and 900 hours. The average for medalists at World Championships and the Olympics is 800 hours.

FS: That’s both men and women?

MD: Yup—men and women both do the same amount of training in all countries, as far as I know. At least in Norway, Sweden, and Finland they are training around the same number of hours, and then we always have the specific things, like how you count strength training. Is it from when you walk inside the strength room, or is it only the seconds where your muscles are working?

Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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