Katja Saarinen conquers mountains
Amputee Alpine skier on way to her third Paralympics
By Antti Penttinen
At 5,895 metres, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa.
Katja Saarinen, an above-the-knee leg amputee, climbed to its summit the autumn before last.
Saarinen and her companions set out to reach the summit in the middle of the night from the base camp at an altitude of four kilometres.
It was pitch black. The ice cold gravel gave way under the climbers’ boots at every step. Saarinen relied on her forearm crutches for added stability.
”The guide told me to advance slowly, using my own style. I had been feverish and suffered from the lack of oxygen. I went forward taking small steps and strangely enough I started feeling better”, Saarinen explains.
Saarinen kept a diary of the six-day climbing adventure.
“I come back to it often. It was a real crash course in achieving one’s goals. No mountain is too high if one is sufficiently motivated to reach the summit.”
Saarinen’s group included two young women from the USA and one from England. All the women were disabled athletes specialising in Alpine skiing.
The Finnish member of the mountain-conquering quartet is now preparing herself for her third Paralympic Games, after Salt Lake City and Torino. The Paralympic Winter Games will take place in Vancouver in March, right after the Winter Olympics, and utilising the same sporting venues and sites.
Saarinen, who has already turned 30, is an experienced and successful Alpine skier.
Her best competitive achievement so far is a World Championship bronze medal from 2004.
During Saarinen’s ten-year involvement in top sports, the disabled sports movement has changed quite a bit and has become nearly as competitive and professional as any other world-class sports.
“I train twice a day, six days a week, totalling between 20 and 25 hours per week”, Saarinen explains.
Earlier in the autumn Saarinen took part in a training camp in Austria, and more recently another at the Ruka ski resort in Finland.
At other times the national disabled Alpine ski team practices in Tahkovuori with the local sports-emphasis upper secondary school, which specialises in Alpine skiing.
The competition season begins next weekend in Austria, with the opening event of the European Cup.
In disabled sports the sponsorship money is not on a par with that in other sports. Even the sponsors themselves are few and far between.
Saarinen’s achievements, however, are of such magnitude that the Ministry of Education has been granting her an annual scholarship of EUR 15,000, in other words a sum equal to those enjoyed, for example, by skier Aino-Kaisa Saarinen or ski-jumper Harri Olli, both of whom will be hoping for some hardware from Vancouver in February.
“Previously I was only given the so-called small grant, which was half of what I enjoy now”, says Saarinen.
Of disabled winter athletes, cross-country skiers Ilkka Tuomisto and Maija Löytynoja also enjoy full scholarships this season.
“I reckon we will have the smallest-ever team from Finland entering the Paralympic Games this time”, frets Saarinen. The team will be selected in the beginning of January.
In the Paralympics the Alpine skiing disciplines have not always remained the same.
Saarinen skis without a prosthetic leg, using a mono-ski and short outriggers, a type of forearm crutches with small skis attached to the bottom.
“The year I won the World Championship bronze, one-legged skiers competed by themselves. Now I race in the same class with arm-amputees who use two skis and those leg-amputees who use a prosthetic leg and two skis.”
The complicated handicap calculations and the agonising waiting for the result are now fortunately a thing of the past.
“The time, with the handicaps and all, is now displayed instantly”, Saarinen explains.
When Saarinen was six years old she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right leg. The leg had to be amputated above her knee.
With that particular type of cancer, one has to wait for ten years before being pronounced healthy. Saarinen’s cancer did not recur.
Saarinen was introduced to Alpine skiing at Kirkkonummi's modest Peuramaa slope when she was four years old, and at the age of ten she stubbornly insisted on continuing the hobby.
“In the upper secondary school age, I was watching the Nagano Paralympics on the TV and I realised that they were doing Alpine skiing. I had no idea then that such disciplines were included. I immediately got excited about the idea and have not looked back since.”
By scaling Kilimanjaro the women wanted to show that a disability cannot do away with a person’s dreams.
Just like in her everyday life, Saarinen does not think about her disability when skiing down a slope either.
“For me Alpine skiing is the main thing, and each performance takes priority.”
WHO? Katja Saarinen
Born: Espoo, 18.9.1979
Club: Slalom Seura
Disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and combined; previously also downhill.
Achievements: Word Championships bronze medal, 2004; Paralympics 2002 Salt Lake City, 7th in slalom; Torino 2006, 12th in slalom.
Education: Schoolteacher, degree in education from Helsinki University in 2008.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 8.12.2009
Paralympic alpine skiing (Wikipedia)
Paralympic Games (Wikipedia)
ANTTI PENTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat