Estonia needed a lift.
Just prior to the start of the 2011 World Ski Championships, Andrus Veerpalu, one of the country’s most decorated athletes, had announced his retirement. He was hampered by illness and a knee injury, and unwilling to make the trip to Oslo if he couldn’t contend for gold.
Estonia’s national team coach, Mati Alaver—a near-mythic figure in the country—may be leaving to work for Russia at the end of the season. And Jaak Mae, Veerpalu’s counterpart and fellow Olympic medal-winner, turned 38 on Friday and is past his prime.
As described by Jan Martinson, a veteran journalist for the Estonian newspaper Ohtuleht, the country’s “golden age” of skiing is coming to an end—one that saw seven Olympic medals since 2002.
Enter Peeter Kummel, a beefy 28-year-old PhD student in sports science at Tartu University.
In Thursday’s freestyle sprint in Oslo, Kummel managed to sneak through the quarters and semis as a lucky loser and advance all the way to the finals, where he ultimately finished sixth on the day.
The result was Estonia’s best-ever in a World Championships sprint, topping Anti Saarepuu’s seventh-place finish in Liberec in 2009.
It served as a much-needed boost to the nation of 1.3 million, which follows cross-country skiing fanatically. Its athletes make front-page news, and beat reporters from Estonia’s newspapers travel to all of the sport’s major championships.
With those journalists comes a lot of scrutiny, and the question of who will succeed Veerpalu and Mae has been hotly debated in Estonia.
The country’s sprinters have shown flickers of brilliance—Kummel, Saarepuu, 27, and Kein Einaste, 26, all crack the semifinals on occasion—but they haven’t shown the consistency of Veerpalu, Mae, or Kristina Smigun.
According to Martinson, though, Kummel’s result was a promising sign.
“He’s that kind of guy that can be on the podium in the near future. He’s developing very smoothly, but always up, up, up,” Martinson said. “We need this kind of guy in Estonia.”
The country, though, will not settle for last place in the finals. While he said he was satisfied with the day, Kummel still described his result to Postimees, the country’s national newspaper, as “the start of something beautiful.”
“We are used to medals. That’s why sixth place is very good—but not enough for us,” Martinson said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.