Kiitos “Queen Kaisa”
For several years, the BMW IBU World Cup season would end; the word on retirement from Kaisa Mäkäräinen would be, “I will decide in a few weeks.” Then as her fans, rivals and teammates waited, she would post a photo message like first ride or taking out her skis; there would be a huge sigh of relief. Kaisa would return for another year, but this spring, the decision has been made. Kaisa has hung up her skis and rifle. “Queen Kaisa” has retired and abdicated her throne.
Borrowed Rifle: a Beginning
Like Martin Fourcade who also retired last Saturday the Finnish star’s retirement leaves a gaping hole in the biathlon world. It seems like Mäkäräinen has been around forever; well, she has been in the sport for a while. The young cross-country skier skipped a week of university to watch the 2003 IBU World Championships on television. “I do not know why I was that interested then. I called the biathlon club in Kontiolahti. I asked them if they had any rifles that I could use and a coach who could teach me how to shoot. That is how my biathlon career began.” As they say, the rest is history…
35 Years on Skis
Mäkäräinen has been in the Nordic skiing business for a lot of years, about 35 of her 37 years to be exact. “I just learned how to walk when I got my first skis; maybe I was just 2- years old. They were like normal winter boots. My parents taught me how to ski. We lived in the countryside with long winters. There was nothing else to do.”
Art of the Pursuit
That baby skier became a woman with ski speed that was feared by everyone who was in front of her in a pursuit competition. Back in 2012 after winning her only IBU WCH Gold medal in the pursuit the previous year, she commented on the art of the pursuit. “I like being behind somebody. I like having a person in front of me that I can catch on the range or on the loop…I do not always win, but for me second or third in a pursuit is also good.”
Everyone who followed biathlon remembers a day when she either put on a show by starting first and then ran away with the victory or she can back after a couple of missed shots to cross the finish line in one of the top spots. Mäkäräinen had 13 career pursuit victories with 33 of her 85 career podiums coming in that discipline.
Essence of Kaisa
The pursuit is kind the essence of Kaisa; always fighting, always working to get better right until last weekend when she ended her career with a typically inspiring effort, going from 18th to 4th , just missing the podium in her career swansong. “Passion and the challenge is a good description of how I feel about biathlon. Everyone should have a little challenge that pushes them a little harder and makes you realize that the best things do not come easy.”
Double Digit Results
Biathlon really did not come easy for this lady. Her early World Cup career is filled with double digit results until December 15, 2007 when she claimed her first podium, second in the Pokljuka sprint, 9.2 seconds behind the French legend Sandrine Bailly and 11.5 seconds faster than the Germany’s future Golden Girl Magdalena Neuner. Before that day, many people watching her thought, “great skier, but probably never a great biathlete.” How wrong they were. Mäkäräinen was filled with Finn Sisu. “When you start shooting at the age of 20 and go to the World Cup two years later. It was surely tough in the beginning. I am happy that I got good results every now and then in those years.”
Sisu and the Big Crystal Globe
Sisu is the determination, tenacity, and resilience that kept her in the game; there were only four other podiums after that first one until the magic season when she won her first of three Women’s World Cup Total Score titles and that big Crystal Globe in 2011. Although she had walked away with two medals in the IBU WCH at Khanty Mansiysk (Sprint Silver, Pursuit Gold) the previous week, the big Crystal Globe was not determined until the final mass start at Holmenkollen. Mäkäräinen, in and out of the Yellow Bib several times during the season was in a fight-to-the-finish with eventual runner-up Andrea Henkel, Magdalena Neuner, Helena Ekholm and Tora Berger. At the finish of the Oslo mass start, Mäkäräinen lay in the snow, not knowing whether her 15th place was good enough for the big prize. Yet, when the dust settled, the Finn was 33 points ahead of Henkel. In her typical understated manner, she said, “I have always dreamed about a season like this.” Appreciating the medals, she emphasized the importance of the Crystal Globe. “Medals are from just one race, but the Overall World Cup is the sum of the whole winter.”
Determination to Improve
Behind her success was her total determination to constantly improve. Throughout her career, she worked with and relied on her personal coach Jarmo Punkkinen, but also was bold enough to pick the mind of other coaches like the USA’s Armin Auchentaller. “I like working with Armin. I talked with for many years in the World Cup. I do not know how it started. He has always been really friendly and open to me, even in the winter. I appreciate that a lot.” Last summer, she admitted that improvements were still possible, but stability was equally important. “I always want to improve my shooting; I want to stay on the level I am in ski time. I cannot really improve that much in skiing, but I still have to work a lot to stay on the same level.”
In Love with…Südtirol
Every summer when teams started their training camps, Mäkäräinen and her fiancé would pack their car and head south mainly to Italy but also at times to Austria, Germany and last summer France. She adores the Südtirol. “(The best part is the) food and mountains… the food is the biggest reason why I prefer the Italian side over the Austrian side. I realized a couple of years ago that I had so much more energy to train when I ate well here.” On her annual tour, she worked solo and then connected with a team. In 2017, she said of Auchentaller’s Swiss team. “It is nice being with a team, especially a happy team like the Swiss. They have a really good atmosphere and I feel very comfortable with them… the Swiss girls are really good and fast shooters. We do a lot of different group training and that is important. On the physical side, Selina (Gasparin) is a bit ahead of the others and I can offer her and the others some good challenges… In this case, we all win.”
Kaisa’s charm was simple: she was the unconventional champion, no cookie cutter public relations robot, but a confident woman with an endearing personality. She smiles a lot, but still has that reserved Finnish temperament, never quite revealing everything on her mind. Yet when she won or was on the podium, the smile was electric; she celebrated. She cried and covered her face when the unexpected victories came her way. Those moments captivated her legions of fans. She was always gracious and appreciative of her good fortune. After a dry spell in the middle of the 2018/19 season, Mäkäräinen back on the podium in the Antholz sprint admitted she had not been sure she would ever return. “It feels almost like my first podium. Seriously after so many really hard weeks for me; it was almost hard to believe I would ever come back here, but I tried to focus on my training and doing things as well as I can… it feels really really good.”
“This is my Life”
Not many people are as satisfied with their lives as Kaisa has been in the later years of her career. She explained last summer. “I still enjoy this; I like to do this; this is my life. It is my choice to do this at age 36. Sometimes, I feel people are a little like…asking me politely, ‘why don’t you do something else; you have probably had your best years.’ Not a lot of people can choose what they want to do, but if you can, then it is your life to live.”
Her final biathlon competition endeared Kaisa to the world once again, battling hard but finishing fourth. Tears filled her eyes, knowing it was her last finish line, at home in Kontiolahti. “I did not expect that it would happen here in my home stadium. But we cannot choose all the steps in our life and finally I am happy that it happened here… my friends all these years that competed here with me. It is a special biathlon family. I will miss them the most.” She hugged and cried long time friend and teammate Mari Eder, posed for some photos with the team and walked away gripping a bouquet of flowers.
Hanna Oeberg, leaned over to Kaisa and said, “I will miss you.” Everyone will miss her…Kiitos Kaisa!
Photos: IBU/ Christian Manzoni, Petr Slavik, Evgeny Tumashov, Rene Miko, Ernst Wukits, Jerry Kokesh, Eberhard Thonfeld