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Marja-Liisa Hamalainen - The Pride of Finland

Marja-Liisa Hamalainen - The Pride of Finland

Finland has always been a very proud country with a ton of history and tradition, but when it came to Olympic success, they went for over six decades without having a powerhouse athlete win three or more gold medals in one Games.

This would all change with Marja-Liisa Hamalainen, however, who would ultimately break that long curse with a dominating performance on the slopes in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Her rise to the top wasn't easy, but not only did she carve out a spot for herself as one of the top female athletes ever, she also helped her home country to regain some much needed pride as legitimate Olympians.

Marja-Liisa Hamalainen

Married now and known as Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi, Hamalainen was born September 10, 1955 in Simpele, Rautjarvi, Finland. She, like many of the Finnish at the time, took to the slopes with ease and became a competitive cross-country skier. Of course, very few skiers will ever experience success, with even fewer actually winning titles and making it to the Olympics, but Hamalainen was a rare breed. She was tall, muscular, and had stamina for days. She could run the final meters of a long event with the same enthusiasm as the first few.

This type of fervor for the sport would begin to pay off in the late 1970s. She helped her team win the 4 x 5km in Lahti in 1978, securing her first gold medal at the World Championships. Her biggest success, however, wouldn't come until she qualified for the Sarajevo Olympic Games.

Hamalainen's Gold Medal Run in 1984

Hamalainen wasn't much of a story going into the Winter Games in 1984. She had experienced very moderate success, but more attention was paid to her Finnish teammates and other competitors in the field. The Soviet Union also had a very impressive skier on their side, an impressive athlete by the name of Raisa Smetanina. Without a doubt, Smetanina was a favorite over Hamalainen in nearly every event, with few people actually giving Marja-Liisa a chance to do anything but play catch-up on the slopes.

More determined than ever to show what she was made of, Hamalainen hit the slopes on February 9 in the 10km singles event and blew through the field in impressive fashion. Not only did she defeat the Soviet, but she beat her by nearly half a minute. Her first gold showed the world that she meant business, but Raisa wasn't about to let Marja-Liisa push her around.

The 5km took place 3 days later, and Hamalaninen again took care of the field. She only finished 4.1 seconds in front of Berit Aunli of Norway, but that was more than enough to prove that she belonged on the same stage as other talented skiers. There were 4 Norwegians in that field total, and Marja-Liisa beat them all handily.

On the 15th of February, the Norwegians exacted their revenge on the Fins. In the 4 x 5km relay, Norway took gold with an impressive time of 1:06:49.7, and Finland would claim the bronze finishing almost a full minute behind. Still in all, this was a team race, and Hamalainen had one more singles event to compete in.

The longer 20km kicked off on February 18. The second race against Raisa played out much like the first, with Hamalainen dominating the field and finishing with the gold. She finished ahead of Smetanina again, whose time was over 40 seconds behind Marja-Liisa's. If anyone thought the first was a fluke, the second race proved that Hamalanien was there to compete, and she wasn't going to move aside just because the Soviets and Norwegians were in the field. At this point, she was truly the pride of Finland. 

Her 1984 performance earned Hamalainen 3 gold medals and 1 bronze, making her the first Fin in over 60 years to claim more than 2 golds at the Olympics. She would medal again in Calgary and Lillehammer, winning bronze each time, but never again would she experience the success of the '84 Games. To this day, however, Hamalainen is considered one of the best cross-country skiers in Finland's history.

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