For Kaisa Mäkäräinen, everything leading up to last season was build up. In her second Olympics, the 31-year-old Finnish biathlete was aiming for the podium, more precisely — a medal, in Sochi, Russia. She had a World Championships gold and silver from 2011, and won the overall World Cup crown that same season, but the Olympics three years later were different.
In the end, her top finishes of sixth in Sochi’s mass start and ninth in the individual race were somewhat of a letdown.
“Of course winning an Olympic medal is something special, which I couldn’t do, but I had kind of accepted that because I was so sick during Sochi,” Mäkäräinen explained in a recent email to FasterSkier. “I did my best but it was mentally really hard time because I couldn’t make my normal routines before races and I didn’t even know [the] day before if I could make the whole race [the] next day! So it was really stressful time…”
Allergies were to blame, she added, but it wasn’t that simple.
“I always get a really bad cough … (you should hear me when I´m coughing..!!) and it always lasts really long,” she wrote. “I never become ‘just a little sick’ and the cough lasts easily 1-2 weeks and is worst during nights so I cannot sleep so well.”
At the Olympics, she laid awake for two nights between the individual and mass-start races, “just coughing on the sofa,” she recalled.
“I never become ‘just a little sick’ and the cough lasts easily 1-2 weeks…” –– Kaisa Mäkäräinen, 2013/2014 IBU World Cup champion on her returning bouts with illness
And she couldn’t write it off as a single, badly timed illness. Last season, Mäkäräinen was sick before the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup circuit started in late November, as well as during the Antholz-Anterselva World Cup in January and the Olympics in February.
Still in shape and feeling better by late March, she notched her second overall IBU World Cup title — fending off Norway’s Tora Berger.
“The end of the season was super fun, I got in [the] flow and even though it was a big fight with Tora in Holmenkollen, I was finally the one who stayed more calm in last race ;)” Mäkäräinen wrote. “That race was probably the biggest win mentally in my last season.”
By early May, she was coughing again — this time for two weeks straight — sapping some motivation out of the start of her new training season.
“I didn’t get such an advantage from my World Cup victory,” she wrote. “I think I forgot that pretty soon.”
Then she lost her voice for two months.
“I spoke during those months but it was not really allowed, and my voice was really low,” she wrote. “It came back little by little to close to my normal voice in beginning of July but docs say there are still something wrong and we try to figure out what it is… I have had asthma since I was 15 years [old], so it probably just gets worse year by year and makes me more and more easily sick.”
She spent the rest of July getting back to a normal routine, training mostly by herself and her boyfriend at her home course in Kontiolahti, Finland, the site of the 2015 IBU World Championships. Late last month, she got a social-and-training boost when three U.S. women and her former coach Jonne Kähkönen visited, working out with them and showing them around the area.
“It was good training together,” Mäkäräinen wrote. “It’s nice to get some company for trainings, especially for biathlon trainings. And it was nice to show them where I train when I’m at home.”
Shooting with them helped her as well, giving her a group-pressure scenario she doesn’t experience daily. But when she’s not hiking or biking with her boyfriend, she can almost always find other skiers training at Kontiolahti, she added.
Still working with personal coach Jarmo Punkkinen, Mäkäräinen will reconvene with her team (including two other A-team women Mari Laukkanen and Markkanen Sanna) and new head coach Marko Laaksonen on Aug. 17 at a camp in Obertilliach, Austria.
Laaksonen coached the Finnish biathlon team Mäkäräinen’s first year on it in 2004/2005, but now she explained he’s more of a team leader who observes her at training camps and gives her coach feedback. She last saw Laaksonen at the team’s first camp in early June, then missed their July camp in Finland to train on her own elsewhere in Europe.
From Aug. 1-3, she competed at the Blink rollerski festival in Norway, placing third on the first day — a 7-kilometer hill climb in Lysebotn — behind American cross-country skier Liz Stephen and Norway’s Kristin Størmer Steira, respectively. She won the race last year, but was pleased she was able to make the podium this time around.
“Blink was great, as always. I have been there five or six times (can’t remember) and go again every year to get some hard but good training in,” she wrote. “Every year after the uphill race I say myself that this was the last time here, it feels so hard to climb it… but then I go next year again. I think that in every athlete there’s little masokist [sic] inside us ;)”
She described her hill-climb result as a “nice surprise. Of course there was a big gap to Liz and Kirstin, but it’s ok … in winter we never do such a climbing races so it’s little special.” In the following 6.3 k biathlon mass start, she placed second, and was fourth on the final day of biathlon sprints.
“I think that in every athlete there’s little masokist [sic] inside us ;)”
Looking ahead to this season, she’s hoping to stay healthy.
“I just want to get a good winter … have fun, enjoy my job, not to stress too much but still have full focus and concentration to get as good result as possible in every single race I start,” she wrote.
With a home World Championships to her advantage — and sprint-and-pursuit podiums in Kontiolahti in 2012 and 2014 (including two sprint victories last season) — she explained she’ll try to enjoy every moment there from March 3-15.
“[It] will be great to live at home and sleep in own bed while others are in hotel,” she added.
While she doesn’t like the beginning of the World Championships course, with about half a kilometer of flat then a “big downhill,” she’s a fan of its uphill sections and the final “wall” back up to the range, which doesn’t allow any rest before shooting.
“That fits for me!” she wrote.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) Cross-Country World Championships will be held beforehand Feb. 8-March 1 in Falun, Sweden, and after competing at the 2013 FIS World Championships in Italy, she’s considering racing the 10 k skate in Falun.
But she’ll have to qualify for the team first and explained she doesn’t want to skip any IBU World Cup races while trying to repeat as overall World Cup champion.
“We’ll see how everything goes,” Mäkäräinen wrote.
At IBU World Championships, she’s focused on the sprint, pursuit, individual, and mass start.
“Sorry to say but relays are not so nice to run,” she wrote.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.