Thursday, May 01, 2014

IOF's Athlete of the Month: Susanna Laurila aiming for World Championships gold

Susanna Laurila started MTB orienteering in 2005, and since then has been refining her natural ability and climbing place after place in the world MTBO panorama. But Susanna is also an adventurer, and it only takes a quick look at her blog to see that her true passions lie in exploring the world with her bike. On the edge of a new season of competition, she takes a little break in her training to introduce herself as the IOF’s Athlete of May.

Name: Susanna Laurila

Country: Finland
Discipline: MTB Orienteering
Career highlights: World MTB Orienteering Championships – Long Distance 1st (2012), Middle Distance 3rd (2013), Sprint 4th (2013), Relay 1st (2012, 2013); Junior World MTB Orienteering Championships – Long Distance 1st (2009), Middle Distance 4th (2009), Relay 2nd (2009); European MTB Orienteering Championships – Middle Distance 3rd (2011), Long Distance 4th (2011), Relay 1st (2013); World Cup – 3rd in the overall Mountain Bike Orienteering World Cup 2013
IOF World Ranking position: 3rd

Susanna Laurila was born 25 years ago in Jalasjärvi, a small town in western Finland, where she lived for the first twenty years of her life. Studying in Vaasa and now at Jyväskylä University, she’s trying to finish her Master studies in Business and Economics. From the deepest lines of her personality, she knows that she is “at least, a pretty competitive person”, something imperative if you are committed in fighting for a successful sporting career. On the other hand, those who know her talk about a girl who loves a good laugh and values people who are honest and straight.

Introduction made, it is time to know which came first: the orienteering or the bicycle? Susanna goes back to her early days in school and recalls: “I think that, in Finland, all the MTB orienteers have originally a foot orienteering background. I started foot orienteering when I was ten, then came ski orienteering, and then MTBO at the age of fifteen.” Orienteering in her case didn’t come from the family, and her parents “started orienteering after they got bored from just watching their kids competing”, Susanna recalls. Jussi, her elder brother, is also a top MTB orienteer – who doesn’t remember his four gold medals in the 2013 European Championships in Poland? – and a sort of ‘guide’ to Susanna’s choices: “I guess I’ve always followed after my brother Jussi in different sports”, she says.

In MTBO I enjoy the speed”

Susanna can’t recall the specific moment when she decided to start concentrating only on MTBO. Getting the Middle Distance bronze medal in the 2009 Junior World MTB Orienteering Championships in Denmark may have been a determining factor. But the precise moment – that sometimes unexplainable “click” – it will remain a mystery. However, about one thing she has no doubt: “In MTBO I enjoy the speed. The best thing is when you find your rhythm and the flow, so that orienteering and biking match perfectly.” And there’s another secret, concerning orienteering in general: “I like the fact that you can rarely have a perfect race, so there’s always something you can improve”, says Susanna.

To achieve success in MTBO it’s still not enough to be always on best physical form and to have a good day, mentally speaking. In this sport, athlete and machine are indivisible. And Susanna doesn’t deny these facts: “For me it’s important that my bike works perfectly and I can trust that it works also in races. The bike also needs to be light enough, but trustworthy and durable so that it doesn’t break down.”

A big part of this sport is mental”

- Is MTBO a dangerous sport?

“Well, it is a dangerous sport, yes, and map reading at high speed makes it even more dangerous. But I don’t think that to have the ambition to win a gold medal, you have to take risks. The risk exists, but a big part of this sport is mental and self-confidence is really important. You can’t win if you don’t believe that you can do so without taking unreasonable risks.”

- What type of terrain do you like the most and what is your favourite distance?

“My favourite terrain is probably a pine forest with some hills. I don’t know if it suits my mental and physical conditions perfectly, but at least it’s fun! As for the distances, I don’t have a favourite distance. Maybe Sprint is the one that I like the least, but that might be just because I usually don’t do so well in Sprint (last year’s 4th position was my best ever). I’ve done my best races in Long Distance, and maybe it suits me better because the longer legs and route choices are a bit easier for me.”

You need to make some changes to keep on getting better”

Let’s concentrate now on training. Like everyone else, Susanna distinguishes between what she calls the ‘training season’ and the ‘race season’, between ‘winter time’ and ‘summer time’. Let’s see: “I rarely train twice a day because there are other things like University. Usually it’s only on training camps that you can concentrate on training only.” Talking about the training season: “there’s a rest week after three weeks of training, and during the rest week I have a rest day or two and might do also something else like running and swimming”, while in race season, “the rest is during the week as the races are usually during weekends”, she explains. An important part of her training is on the road bike, “during winter with a home trainer and in the summer out-of-doors, of course.” In the end, “training is something I could definitely do more of, but this kind of pattern has been working quite well for me until now”, Susanna concludes.

- What about your coach? How important is he in your sporting life and what is the level of trust that you put on him?

“Since the beginning of this season, my partner Juho Saarinen has been coaching me. My previous coach had been coaching me for several years, and there wasn’t anything that wasn’t really working. It’s just that, sometimes, you need to make some changes to keep on getting better. Juho has knowledge of cycling, training with ‘watts’ [indoor bike training programme], and he is near me so we can adjust the training more easily. And most importantly, I trust him, which I think is essential in every coach-athlete relationship, and of course in a normal relationship also!”

Good days, bad days

Physically quite strong and “sometimes also mentally strong enough to get through the course with minimal mistakes” (laughs), she points to the World Championships in Hungary in 2012 as one of the best moments of her career: “After being disqualified in the Middle Distance and having a not so good Sprint, it felt actually easy to do the last leg for our team and win the gold medal in the Relay. And after that the Long Distance gold of course felt really good, with Juho taking the silver medal on the same day”, Susanna remembers. But there are also some bad days, for example the Relay in Italy 2012 “when I was on the first leg and got a puncture in the middle of the course.” Another one is the disqualification in Middle Distance in Hungary, on the third-last control when she had a clear lead: “It was difficult because I still had the Relay and the Long Distance left and I needed to get myself together for those races”, she explains.

Talking about the ‘war of the sexes’: as in many other sports we can see differences between men and women in MTBO. “Big differences”, says Susanna, “obviously because there’s also fewer athletes, so for women, physical condition is often more important than orienteering skills, whereas men are more equal physically and orienteering might be the crucial thing.” Susanna admits that she doesn’t really have any idol in MTBO, and the explanation for that is simple: “I think it’s easier to compete (and win) if you don’t see the other competitors as idols or such.” But she thinks also that it’s important to train and compete with people who are better than her, and actually she often trains with men.

Paradise? What paradise?

Taking a look at the Finnish athletes’ results, we can imagine Finland as a ‘MTB orienteers paradise’. However, Susanna’s opinion is quite different: “Actually I don’t think that Finland is any paradise for MTBO. We have been struggling to get enough organisers for competitions for a few years now. When I look at the national calendar, there are twelve competitions altogether this year, which includes four National Championships (Sprint, Middle, Long and Relay). So we don’t have that many races.” On the other hand she mentions that “in the last year’s Finnish Championships Middle Distance there were almost 300 entries, so that might give some idea of how many athletes there are.” Clubs do, though, organise weekly events that sometimes include a MTBO course too. To Susanna, “those events are important because it’s easier for a beginner to take part in an event like that, rather than going straight to a real competition.”

Clubs in Finland do not specialise in MTBO, and only a few athletes are doing only MTBO. And here arises the question of sponsorship, a major problem in the present economical context. If there are some elite MTBO athletes getting support from their clubs, this is not the case for Susanna Laurila: “I have to pay everything for World Cup races, European Championships and, this year, even some amount for the World Championships. The support from the National Federation is not very big, as it reflects the number of athletes and the popularity of the sport. Sometimes it feels frustrating to spend thousands of Euros each year on this sport, because there’s no way that I could earn a living doing MTBO, no matter how good I am.” In the end, the solution has been her parents: “I need to thank them for supporting me and my brother, because without them this wouldn’t be possible”, Susanna recognises.

“We can’t always be in the same place; the world is changing constantly”

- How do you evaluate the present state of MTB orienteering world-wide?

“I think that at the moment MTBO is doing quite well. The number of competitors is at a good level and also the competitive level of the athletes is high. It’s good that there’s a tool like the event evaluation, so that we can constantly improve on event quality. Another thing working for better events is the fact that more countries are applying to organise international races. Rules have been in constant change in recent years – some changes have been good and some not – but we can’t always be in the same place; the world is changing constantly.”

“If I could change something, I would scrap the European Championships, or do as in SkiO with World Championships and European Championships taking turns in every other year. I think that the value of the European Championships is quite low, at least it’s seen that way in Finland, and it’s just like any other World Cup race for example. At the moment, it’s mostly the same people at the top in the European Championships and the World Championships, but there’s just not real value in European Championships.”

- What would you do in order to develop MTBO in other countries than the European countries, for example Australia or Japan?

“That’s a hard question, and I don’t really have a good solution for that either. It’s probably up to local people who are enthusiastic enough to develop the sport in their own countries. I think also that in the IOF MTBO Commission they are trying hard to take into account these countries when making new rules.”

Golden goals

We can hear Thierry Gueorgiou saying that “it’s in the winter that you win the medals of the summer”. So let’s hear Susanna’s opinion on it: “It’s probably true that in the winter you do the basic work which is important for the summer. Our main competitions (World Championships) are usually quite late in the summer, and you can still do much in the spring and summer (and also do things wrong …). We’ve just come from a two-week training camp which we had in Mallorca. We had only road bikes there so there wasn’t any MTBO. That’s probably the most intense training period of the year concerning kilometres and hours. Now I’m preparing for the World Cup races in Denmark. Otherwise the winter has been quite good, I’ve been healthy and there haven’t been any problems (other than that the winter was so poor that I could do hardly any cross-country skiing, which I normally do quite a lot during winter).”

Susanna ended last season with a victory in the World Cup’s final individual stage. Was it the harbinger of a golden season to come? She recalls that last season, “I had difficulties in the winter, a lot of sickness. Though I managed to do quite well in the World Championships, the season wasn’t as good as the previous one. Maybe in the last race of the season I just had a bit more energy than the others.” Which leads us to the present season: “My goal for this season is to get an individual gold medal in the World Championships, as I couldn’t achieve it last season.” But there are still other goals as well as the World Championships, although not as important to the athlete: “They are really in second place in my own mind, but yes, it would be nice to be on the podium in the World Cup. In the World Rankings I want to be good enough just to keep my place in the Red Group (the late-starting group), but otherwise it doesn’t matter that much. But then I also want to do well in the Finnish Championships MTB marathon and some other MTB and road races.”

Have fun!”

Close to the end, still time to ask how long we are going to see Susanna doing MTBO. And the answer: “I’m going to continue with MTBO as long as it’s fun and motivating, so I don’t really have any year set in my mind when I’m going to retire. As I’m going to graduate in the near future and quite possibly also start working, I don’t really know how it will then affect my training, motivation, etc. A big part of motivation comes from the MTBO community and friends, and it would be sad not seeing everyone at the races during the summer.”

And she finishes the interview with some advice to those youngsters who are just starting in MTBO: “This advice is quite general but goes for MTBO too: Have fun – that’s the most important thing that one shouldn’t forget! And don’t take it too seriously. But work hard, stay motivated, and anything is possible.”

Athletes’ questions and answers

The question from Martin Fredholm, the Athlete of the Month in April: With the exception of Cecilia Thomasson we don’t have that many good MTB orienteers in Sweden, or not that many at all for that matter. What should we do to get better and more competitive and also increase the popularity of MTBO in Sweden?

And Susanna Laurila’s answer: “I don’t know if I have an answer to this, but I think in Sweden things are actually going in the right direction; you have the Swedish Cup with overall money prizes (!), the O-ringen where lots of potential athletes see the sport, and now you have a top athlete too. I’ve heard that there’s also determination and enthusiasm to make the sport more popular, and that’s a good thing. Also it’s great that you now have an athlete [Cecilia] who has reached the top, and others can now see what it takes to be there and how good you actually need to be (a sort of bench-marking). That will also help others to get better.”

One last question from Susanna Laurila to Catherine Taylor, the next Athlete of the Month: “Congratulations on your EOC medal! I hear that you live in Sweden and do mostly just orienteering. Coming from a country where orienteering is not that big a sport, how difficult was the decision to move to Sweden and start devoting your life to orienteering? Was it hard to justify to yourself/family/friends?”

Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido

[See the original article at Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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