One year ago, Kazakh ski star Alexey Poltoranin began working with Andrus Veerpalu, a Estonian skier who held the title of oldest skier ever to become a World Champion but was later disgraced in an human growth hormone doping scandal.
“He is a good guy and I’m happy with his work,” Poltoranin told Estonian sports outlet ERR last fall. “It’s a really good thing that he’s working with the team.”
Veerpalu was not a team coach, but more an advisor. During his time racing, he was recognized as a classic technique specialist, which made him a good match for Poltoranin.
“He is definitely a really strong skier and a great classic skier, perhaps one of the best classic skiers last year, so this is an especially attractive job offer,” Veerpalu said when he was hired. “I will be responsible for his skis, helping him choose his skis, testing the skis. My position might change later as well, maybe concerning technique and those kinds of things, but that will become clear in the course of our cooperation.”
Poltoranin finished fourth in the overall World Cup standings in 2013, but slumped in 2014, falling out of the top ten. A major medal hope for Kazakhstan, Poltoranin finished ninth in the 15 k classic at the Olympics and 15th in the skiathlon.
Despite this disappointment, he is strengthening his ties to the Estonians and this summer, moved to the country to be closer to his support staff.
He is also formalizing a relationship with Mati Alaver, the famous Estonian coach who built the program up after the country left the Soviet Union. Alaver coached both Veerpalu and two-time Olympic gold medalist Kristina Smigun. Poltoranin’s longtime coach Alexey Nakonechniyn will stay onboard as well. Veerpalu is reportedly now working primarily on ski preparation (although there is speculation and discussion that he will eventually coach the Estonian team), along with Finland’s Jari Nieminen.
This spring, Poltoranin explained that he was splitting from his federation, who he did not feel adequately supported him. He wanted to plan an individualized training group with Alaver, but the federation disagreed. Poltoranin claimed that in the future he may even switch his citizenship if the Kazakh ski team’s preparations remained inadequate.
“I did not feel comfortable with the organization, flights, accommodation, meals, inadequate coaches, challenges surrounding medical supervision and that the best equipment is not used,” Poltoranin said according to a translation. “ I have not been happy with ski service and lubrication. In order to compete on an even higher level, I need strengthened medical attention, I must have a sports physician and a good wax team… I have sponsors who are willing to assist me in preparing for this new Olympic period (the next Winter Olympics in 2018).”
For their part, some Estonians hope that adding Poltoranin to their ranks could help restore their once-great team to glory – even if he never dons an Estonian suit. Alaver is still coaching three Estonian men. Among them, current World Cup team members Raido Ränkel and Algo Kärp said that having one of the world’s top skiers train with them would surely help their preparations.
“So far I’ve only been training for Estonian men who are not as strong as Poltoranin,” Ränkel said.
Poltoranin had nothing but positive things to say about Otepää after his first training camp there.
“Previously, I had been Otepääl winter, and now for the first time in the summer,” he told EKV news. “I liked it very much. There are all conditions for training, and life is calm. I have good impressions of Otepää. I looked for rental apartments for the first year… the main thing is that the apartment has a sauna. As an athlete it’s not at all insignificant. This is a big plus.”
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.