Jonne Kahkonen was hired by the United States Biathlon Association this summer to be the new women’s head coach. Kahkonen, who hails from Finland, just finished a four-year stint as head coach of the biathlon program. Finland’s top performances last season came from Kaisa Makarainen, who finished the year ranked 22nd in the overall World Cup Standings.
How did Kahkonen end up in the United States? U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb said that he got to know Kahkonen when they overlapped at biathlon events over the last few years.
“We knew that the Finnish program might be restructuring, mainly for financial reasons, and that he might be interested in taking a job with us. I had seen that he had a great personality and an ability to connect with athletes. He was a good teacher,” Cobb said.
Asked what he hoped Kahkonen would accomplish with the women’s team, Cobb said he believed that the U.S. can capture top-10 finishes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In the next year, he hopes Kahkonen can send the women into the top 20 on the World Cup.
Lanny Barnes, who along with her sister Tracy is the most senior member of the women’s squad, said that working with Kahkonen has been productive so far. “Jonne is going to be great,” she said. “We have struggled in the past with coaches who didn’t really connect with the women, but with Jonne, it has been really positive. There have been big changes in both training and the general team atmosphere.”
We caught up with Kahkonen for a brief interview, and to introduce him to the American ski audience.
FasterSkier: Could you tell us a little bit about your background as a coach?
Jonne Kahkonen: I started coaching when I was still an athlete myself. Mostly I was doing cross-country skiing, but also a little bit of biathlon during my military service in Finland. The coaching started with some regional and provincial teams in Finland, moving up to the national development team for cross-country skiing in 1999.
After that, I was hired as a full-time coach at the Canadian National Team Development Centre in Thunder Bay, again working with cross-country skiers. I coached there for three years, from 1999 to 2002.
In 2002, I moved back to Finland and started as the junior biathlon team coach (2002 to 2003), and at the same time I was assisting with the senior team and working as a wax tech on the World Cup. From 2003 to 2005, I was the youth manager and coach for Lahti Ski Club, coaching both skiing and biathlon. After the Olympics in 2006, I started with the senior national biathlon team as the head coach, finishing after the Games last year.
The level of athletes has been greatly varied, from beginners and young stars to [those with] international level success. The greatest thing about that has been to see athletes taking the next step, whichever step it was at the time.
FS: You are coming from coaching the Finnish team, where one of your athletes had a podium finish on the World Cup last year. The American women are much less experienced. Could you talk about the switch?
JK: As I said, the most rewarding thing about coaching is to see an athlete stepping up, taking it to the next level – regardless of which level it is. For sure, I enjoy the success when it comes, but the greatest thing about switching here was to be able to do coaching every day. In Finland, the system works through camps. Pretty much all the athletes have their individual coaches on top of the team coaches, and there, [my work was] a lot of communication with the personal coaches in between the camps. For long periods of time, I wouldn’t see the group athletes at all.
FS: Biathlon is huge in Europe, but not so much in the United States. What are the pros and cons of crossing the Atlantic?
JK: The media coverage is great in Europe, but unfortunately not as much in Finland. So in that way, I’m used to being ‘the small player in the game.’ Also, I had to work hard on recruiting new athletes, and this is the same here now. It’s not the perfect situation, but we know it and will work hard on getting more athletes involved.
And for things that are in fact better here: The everyday coaching is really something that I appreciate. Also, part of that is the setup here in Lake Placid, which is really good for top-level athletes. All the training can start right from your front door – which is the Olympic Training Center building with boarding, a good cafeteria, sports medicine, etc. It’s a facility that not all nations can enjoy having, and it’s here and available for us.
FS: What is your impression of the women’s team so far, and what are your goals for them?
JK: It’s only been a couple of months that I have really had the chance of working with the women, but I can see a lot of potential. The things that they need to work on the most are pretty simple: training volume in general, [and] to be able to handle hard training in the following years. And this I think goes for both physical and shooting training. One goal in particular I want the women to focus on is group training. We are far away from the ‘heart of biathlon’ and don’t get the chance to train with the European biathletes that often, so we will definitely have to make sure we gather all the best Americans together for training here.
For competition goals, I don’t have a wide background of setting goals for them specifically, but seeing the potential there is, I would really like…a couple of them placing in the World Cup points consistently this season.
FS: Since the primary men’s coaches, Per Nilsson and Armin Auchentaller, are often in Europe, you’re often the one in charge of everyone in Lake Placid, in addition to acting as the women’s coach. What are your day-to-day duties there?
JK: The normal routine here is training one or two times per day, depending on the training block, and including both men and women. The men are part of the training group here whenever they’re not gone in Europe for a camp. When all the athletes are in town, we have a group of six men and four women training together.
FS: Apart from the coaching job, are you happy to have moved to the United States with your family?
JK: The move here has been great. For sure, moving in with a family of five is not a walk in the park…I’ve got three boys who are three, eight and ten years old, so it’s been a lot of work, but now it seems like we’re settling in. The two older kids have started school at Lake Placid Elementary School, and it’s going great. They are learning more English every day with their new buddies, which makes me really proud of them and will be a huge asset for them in the future. Also, the community here in Lake Placid has been warm and welcoming. All in all, it has been a lot of work relocating, but totally worth it.