KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Last season found Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland finish up ranked 26th in the world.
26th, you might think. That’s pretty good. But if you were Saarinen, then 34 years old, you probably wouldn’t have the same feeling. She was a three-time Olympic medalist, six-time World Championships medalist, once a runner-up in the Tour de Ski, and had won the Holmenkollen.
She was mired in a season where the had a couple of fifth-place finishes in the Tour de Ski, and otherwise a best finish of eighth. Most were much worse.
So when Saarinen finished fourth in the 10 k classic at the Olympics here in Sochi – just two seconds from Therese Johaug of Norway and a bronze medal – she first said, “everything I have done is for nothing.” But shortly thereafter, she had a very different attitude about her result.
“Many came to me after the 10 k like oh, we were so sorry that you didn’t get a medal,” Saarinen said in a press conference later in the Games. “And yes, it was only two seconds to the medals. But I haven’t been disappointed because I made one of my best races ever on that day. I was thinking what I could have done better, but I didn’t find anything… my skis were great and I skied well. I really did one of my best races ever.”
Saarinen went on to take silver with her Finnish teammates in both the team sprint and the 4 x 5 k relay. That was part of a remarkable week of racing that almost nobody saw coming from veteran.
More surprisingly, the roots of her return to the medals were, perhaps, on the other side of the world in Alaska.
In the summer of 2012, American sprint star Kikkan Randall invited Saarinen to join the U.S. women’s team for a training camp in Anchorage and then on the Eagle Glacier.
“I just love this good energy here in this training camp; I think I have gotten what I came here for,” she told FasterSkier at the time.
Since then, she has put in a lot of hard work. She had that tough 2012-2013 season, and then regrouped.
“Last spring I was totally out, tired and I really had to think that I had to reload myself and do everything better than I ever have done,” Saarinen said in the press conference after the team sprint. “Actually I haven’t bad trainings this season, but the hardest thing has been to get my self confidence back.”
The mental side began to come around in the last World Cup weekend before the Games, when Saarinen finished ninth in a 10 k classic race in Toblach, Italy.
“I was ninth there but I had very bad glide,” Saarinen said. “When I checked out the sector times, I saw I was the second-best on uphills, and the best was Marit. I lost one minute on the downhills so it was only 13 seconds behind on uphills. I knew my shape on that level was how it should be before the Olympics. My mind got in the right mood.”
After winning silver in the relay, Saarinen’s feeling about skiing had come full circle in just under a year. She was so happy that when she ran into U.S. skiers Sadie Bjornsen and Sophie Caldwell jogging around a pond in the athletes’ village, she broke down in tears.
“She just told Sophie and I how much she had learned from the US Ski Team girls,” Bjornsen wrote in an e-mail. “She told us that her entire team had been down playing games the night before the race, and she just never dreamed that she would be doing that. She recognized that she always had believed that you had to be serious to be fast. But then she broke down crying and just said how much she appreciated what we had taught her during that camp. She learned that having fun was the best way to do well.”
Bjornsen called the incident “pretty cool” and said that it meant a lot to know that the U.S. team, something of an upstart and certainly outside the European-dominated core of international skiing, could teach lessons to others. It made all of the friendships that the women’s team has been forging feel particularly worthwhile.
“We all sort of broke down into tears and hugged, because it was such a special moment,” Bjornsen said. “Here she was learning from us just as much as we had learned from her! That is one powerful compliment!”
Even if the change in mental attitude came from close to home, some Americans were still impressed by what Saarinen had been able to do.
“It’s been amazing to see her doing so well these games after what many would consider a couple of difficult years,” said Holly Brooks, who skied with Saarinen at the Alaska camp. “It’s funny because I tried to do the same, re-group before the Olympic season so I could put my best foot forward. The only difference is that it worked for her and unfortunately, not for me… I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with her at length about what she’s done differently this season but she’s certainly pulled it together in an amazing way.”
Saarinen seemed to find the right formula, and couldn’t be happier.
“I’m so happy about all these races,” she said. “I have done excellent work, especially after struggling last year. I just feel that everything is so right, and these Olympic Games feel the most fun and joyful Games ever I my career.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.