King And Queen Of Finnish Skiing
Kirvesniemi and Hämäläinen met at a ski camp in 1978. He had only graduated from high school the year before. Hämäläinen, three years older than Kirvesniemi (she was born September 10, 1955), had already been skiing for the Finnish team for several years and had even competed in the 1976 Winter Olympics, where she placed twenty-second in the ten kilometer. Kirvesniemi, who grew up in central Finland as the son of a policeman and a schoolteacher, had been skiing competitively since he was four, while competitive skiing ran in Hämäläinen's family: her father, Kalevi, won a gold medal in the fifty kilometer freestyle at the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Both Kirvesniemi and Hämäläinen hovered around third place in the Finnish national standings for several years, but Hämäläinen broke through first. In 1983 she won the World Cup title, and at the Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the next year she took home three gold medals, winning the five, ten, and twenty kilometer events. She also won a bronze medal with the Finnish four-by-five kilometer relay team. Hämäläinen would never have another Olympics like that, but she did collect three more bronzes in her career, one with the relay team in 1988 and one each in the five kilometer classical and thirty kilometer classical in 1994. The latter two bronzes earned Hämäläinen (who was by then married and competing as Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi) a place in the record books as the oldest female Winter Olympian ever to earn a medal in an individual event.
Kirvesniemi never won an Olympic gold medal, but he did set a record of his own: he is one of only two athletes to have won six Olympic bronze medals in his lifetime. Five of those six came with the Finnish national four-by-ten kilometer relay team, which placed third in the relay at five of the six Olympics held between 1980 and 1998. (The exception was 1988, when they finished eighth.) In 1984 Kirvesniemi also earned a bronze in the fifteen kilometer. This third-place pattern was set early in his career. As he told Sports Illustrated reporter Kenny Moore shortly before the 1988 Olympics, "I've got six bronze medals in Olympic and world championship races, and in the World Cup point totals I've been third twice. My place has always been third."