Traces of skiing legends are all over Otepaa, Estonia, where American athletes were contesting the cross-country World Junior and U-23 Championships in late January.
Framed posters of the country’s Olympic medalists were scattered near the entrance to the venue, in the “Park of Estonian Skiing Heroes.” Jaak Mae’s Mercedes Benz was parked across the way.
But inside the American service cabin, in the guise of a pudgy, unassuming figure at one of the wax tables, was one skiing hero in the flesh: Oleg Ragilo, the former personal ski tech for Estonian Olympic gold medalist Kristina Smigun-Vaehi. At World Juniors, he was working for the U.S. team as a freelancer, in an off-year of what has otherwise been a remarkable career.
In skiing-mad Estonia, Ragilo’s status is just short of legendary in his own right—he is known as the best glide waxer in the entire country, according to Jaan Martinson, a journalist who ghostwrote Smigun’s book and has covered skiing for the last 14 years.
“Everybody knows him,” Martinson said.
A former Estonian junior champion, Ragilo began working as a wax tech in the 2001 season—a year after the conclusion of his own athletic career. When Smigun-Vaehi’s old wax tech retired, her manager, a mutual friend, approached Ragilo and offered him the job.
He took it, and ended up working for Smigun-Vaehi through last season, with a two-year hiatus working for the U.S. Ski Team in 2008 and 2009 during her brief retirement.
In his job as a service-man, Ragilo’s sole responsibility was waxing Smigun-Vaehi’s 60-some pairs of Fischers. All he worried about was kick and glide—another man, Raul Seema, was in charge of choosing the right skis. Smigun-Vaehi wasn’t involved at all.
“Her only work was racing,” Ragilo said. “She didn’t know anything about her skis.”
Aside from the first few years—when he worked for a telecommunications firm in the summer—Ragilo was a wax tech full-time, year-round.
His job took him around the globe, from the Olympics in Vancouver and Italy, to World Championships in Japan, to the annual World Cup circuit from Scandinavia through continental Europe and Russia.
It sounds glamorous, but Ragilo said it was anything but.
“A lot of people think it’s a cool job,” he said. “What you see, mostly, is the Autobahn in Germany. You arrive late nights in other places…You see the different ski tracks, but not much of the sightseeing.”
Ragilo was present for all three of Smigun-Vaehi’s medals—two golds in Italy in 2006, and silver last year in Vancouver. At those races, he said, he often had to make tough decisions on her behalf.
One such case was the 10 k classic in Torino. It was klister conditions; the Estonians prepared Smigun’s skis, and sent her out to test.
“She tried them, came back, and goes, ‘I have no kick at all—you should do something,’” he said.
The wax, though, should have been working. Ragilo took the skis back, and sent Smigun-Vaehi away.
“We said, ‘you go to the start—we’ll go to the wax room and we’ll add some more wax,’” Ragilo said.
Smigun-Vaehi got her skis back, started the race, and on the first uphill, she informed the Estonian staff that the wax was fine. She went on to win the gold medal that day, and Ragilo met her at the finish.
“She goes…’what you did was perfect!’” he said. “I told her, we didn’t do anything.”
“That shows what work you’re doing,” Ragilo said. “You have big decisions to make—you cannot change a lot. You need to know your athlete.”
According to Ragilo, he rarely messed up—the number of times he blew Smigun-Vaehi’s wax was no more than three times over the course of his career. And even then, he said, it wasn’t a total disaster.
“She was a strong skier—she could get tenth place with really bad skis,” he said.
For Smigun-Vaehi, the mess-ups weren’t a big deal—athletes, Ragilo said, “understand you are not a robot.”
But in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Estonian skiing, Ragilo’s work was under constant scrutiny by the media. Ultimately, he said, it was 1.3 million people—the country’s entire population—“rating your job every weekend.”
“Not many jobs you can find like that,” he said.
Ragilo said that he read the newspapers when he started working for Smigun-Vaehi, but that he wasn’t the kind of person to let criticism bother him.
“You do your best—what more can you do?” he said. “If it’s enough, that’s good. If it’s not enough, you learn something and try again next time.”
Smigun made the decision to retire for a second time in June, which Ragilo said was too late for him to get a job working for another athlete or team this season. He told FasterSkier he was hoping to work for the Americans again in 2012; Martinson said that Ragilo could end up waxing for Swedish star Charlotte Kalla.
In the mean time, Ragilo is working as a freelancer—he aided the Americans in Otepaa, and has also been helping out with a small club, mostly with juniors. Other than that, he’s taking a little more time with his family this year, before heading back on the circuit next season. For athletes, skiing can be an all-consuming profession, but for Ragilo, the sport is just one way to make a living.
“You are not a rich person, but you’re okay,” he 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.