Transitions, Training, and Birkie Preparation: A Q&A with Riitta-Liisa Roponen

Rachel PerkinsFebruary 19, 2020

To view Riitta-Liisa Roponen’s complete FIS profile requires a lot of scrolling and selecting “show more.” The 41-year-old raced her first World Cup in Munio, Finland on November 28th, 1998. More than 20 years later, she raced her final World Cup event, helping the Finnish relay team to 3rd in Ulricehamn, Sweden on January 27th, 2019. 

She went on to race at the World Ski Championships in Seefeld, Austria, placing 22nd in the 30-kilometer mass start skate, then ended her season racing on the Finnish national circuit. 

In between November 1998 and March 2019, Roponen competed in five rounds of the Olympic Games, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 5 k relay in the 2010 Vancouver games. Her best individual finish was 6th, 10 seconds from a medal, in the 10 k freestyle, also in Vancouver. 

Krista Parmakoski tags Riitta-Liisa Roponen for Finland while Sweden’s Stina Nilsson heads out on her last lap after being tagged by Maria Rydqvist n the 4 x 5 k relay at the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

She also earned six World Championship medals, four in the relay and two in the team sprint, and seven individual World Cup podiums. 

Most of the accomplishments came while also being a parent. Long before Kikkan Randall and Marit Bjørgen, Roponen navigated the waters of training through pregnancy and continuing her World Cup career afterward. She gave birth to her daughter, Ida, in 2004, returning to the World Cup later that year with a 17th place finish in her first race back. 

This year has been a transitional year for Roponen. Her family moved to Colorado where her husband, Toni, took over as the head cross country coach at Denver University

Riitta-Liisa Roponen on her way to a win in the 10-kilometer skate at 2020 U.S. Nationals. (Photo: Reese Brown)

No longer racing on the World Cup, she has continued to train and compete at a high level, adding a new international twist to the American and Canadian women’s field racing the SuperTour circuit. Roponen won the 10 k skate in Sun Valley, then repeated her win in the same event at U.S. Nationals. Two days later, she took 3rd in the 20 k classic.

After a quick trip to Finland to race the 10 k classic at the Finnish National Championships (see her comments below), Roponen is setting her sights on Hayward as she prepares for the American Birkebeiner. Given her results on the domestic circuit, Roponen is viewed as a favorite for the Birkie win. 

Adjusting to life at altitude, Riitta-Liisa Roponen rollerskis up Lookout Mountain outside of Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Instagram @rlroponen)

FasterSkier connected with Roponen over email this week to discuss the longevity of her career, her transition to life in the U.S., and her feelings on her first season away from the World Cup.

FasterSkier: How have you maintained both the physical capacity (speed, fitness, health) and the motivation to train and compete at the highest level for so long? 

Riitta-Liisa Roponen: I have been training for skiing since I was very young, but when I was under 22 I did not train as hard and as much as others (I feel that my club coach was smart). That way I  have been able to increase my training year by year and always find something new to develop. The main reason is that I love training and racing.

FS: Speak to the evolution of your career over the last five years. In a video interview last March (embedded below), you said: “I believe that skiing will never end in my life. If I don’t train, I can still enjoy when I ski. Skiing is mental and physical well-being. It doesn’t stop even if it ends as a job.” Where do you see yourself as a professional athlete now?

RLR: I have been training this year as a professional athlete (about 800 hours) but my race goals have been here in the USA — US Nationals and the American Birkie.  

FS: What has it been like moving to the United States? Have you enjoyed your experience in Colorado so far?

RLR: This has been my long time dream to move here with my family. We have been very happy here all the time. The weather, people, food.. all is great! This is also a great opportunity for my daughter. Moving here has been her dream for a long time also. This is a big adventure for all of us. 

Caitlin Patterson (left), Ritta-Liisa Roponen (bib 103), and Hailey Swirbul (bib 101) lead the way in the 20-kilometer classic at 2020 U.S. Nationals. (Photo: Reese Brown)

FS: How have you found your experience racing SuperTours and US Nationals? How does the level of competition compare to what you experience racing in Finland? What has your focus been this season? 

RLR: The level of competition is very high and I think that level will be even higher in the future — you have already a very strong women’s national team. It looks like your big clubs and national team know what to do. You have lot of very fast juniors coming and I believe in 2-4 years the USA national team will be even stronger than now (also on men’s side). Our National teams are now about the same level, but behind the national teams, the level is higher here in the USA . 

FS: How are you feeling leading into the Birkie?

RLR: I am really looking forward to racing the Birkie and it is great to see the biggest ski event here in North America. My season has been very good so far and I am feeling still very good, so I can not wait to start! I am expecting to see a lot of other good skiers on the start and it will be fun to race with them.

A quick mother-daughter selfie trail-side during a Thanksgiving camp in West Yellowstone. (Photo: Instagram @rlroponen)

FS: You also raced the 10k Classic at Finnish Nationals this season. What was the motivation there? 

RLR: That was part of the plan. Ida was at school and I wanted to see my parents. The plan was to do those competitions because of my home town club. I was 5 th place in the classic race with very bad skis, so I was actually very strong in that race. 

FS: Now that Ida is 16 and also training for skiing, does your own focus change? How has it been training with her and counseling her as a developing athlete? 

RLR: Ida was a swimmer earlier (from 6 years) and she wanted to start skiing when she was 13 . We are excited to see how independent and motivated she is. Sure I want to help her in many ways, but the main priority is that she really loves the sport.



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Rachel Perkins

Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646