Wednesday, October 19, 2016

IOF Athlete of the Month: Lauri Malsroos

I like to think that Lauri Malsroos has the company of his child when sharing some of the strongest impressions of his life. A life that has, for three months now, a new and valued component. His baby son is of a different generation with different opportunities, a different sense of freedom and a different level of security than the father had three decades ago. Malsroos senior is the subject of our attention in the paragraphs that follow, from his childhood through to his amazing performances in the last round of the 2016 MTB Orienteering World Cup, held a few weeks ago in Lithuania.

Name: Lauri Malsroos
Country: Estonia
Date of Birth: 7th February 1986
Place of Birth: Tallinn
Work: Estonian Air Force, helicopter pilot
Hobbies: Sport, attending Hard Rock and Metal concerts
Discipline: MTB Orienteering
Club: SK Saue Tammed
Career Highlights: World MTB Orienteering Championships: One gold medal (2014, Relay), one silver medal (2013, Sprint), two bronze medals (2013, Relay and 2015, Sprint). European MTB Orienteering Championships: One gold medal (2015, Sprint) and one silver medal (2009, Relay). World Cup Overall: 2nd (2016), 4th (2014) and 6th (2015).
IOF World Ranking: 3rd

Lauri Malsroos was born in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and he grew up in a small town on the outskirts of the city. An active child by nature, he made outdoor spaces the big stage for all his childhood play; they were spaces of freedom shared with other children of the same age.

In those times of relentless pursuit and constant discovery, the forest there, so close, exerted on Lauri an unparalleled allure. In deepest green, the brightness of the clearings matched the darkness of their shadows. At the age of 6 he was out in the forest treasure-hunting in the company of his grandfather, who then introduced him to Orienteering. Even before the age of 10 the small Lauri already needed no company or the safety of having older persons with him and, a map in his hands, was taking firm steps into the forest searching for the kites. Not that he wouldn’t play football or basketball – and skiing came much later, between 18 and 20 years old – but Orienteering has always been his favourite sport.

Soon competing abroad

As long as he can remember, Lauri always had a bike as a plaything as well. But it was only at the age of 12 that he received his first ‘real’ bike, with gears and everything, a real mountain bike. He really enjoyed using his bike, but Lauri was far from putting orienteering and biking together. The focus of his attention was on Foot Orienteering, and his investment in regular training and getting into the best physical shape meant that good results came almost naturally. In 2003, Lauri Malsroos was in the Estonian National Team that participated in the European Youth Orienteering Championships in Slovakia and in the same competition the year after in Austria. His international career continued in 2005 and 2006, in Switzerland and Lithuania respectively, competing in the Junior World Orienteering Championships. “Unfortunately I didn’t get any really good results, but I still enjoyed running with a map in those forests a lot,” Lauri remembers.

But it is also around this time that maps and bikes began to come together, for reasons that are, after all, common to a large number of mountain bike orienteers. “I had a lot of injuries in my ankle when I was young and training regularly became complicated. Since I also enjoyed riding my bike, it was just a matter of connecting the two loves,” he says. The first MTBO competitions that Lauri attended were the Estonian MTB Orienteering Championships in 2004, and he won his class by “a decent margin”, in his words. He did the same three years in a row. Every passing day, Lauri felt more and more attracted by “the balance between physical and mental effort” at a higher speed. So when he was no longer a junior, he made the decision to try MTBO at an international level. The year was 2007.

The biggest motivation was the Relay”

- Can you recall the moments before and during your first big MTBO international competition, the 2007 World MTB Orienteering Championships in Nove Mesto Na Morave?

“The Estonian MTB Orienteering Championships took place two weeks before the World Championships and my form was really good at that time. On both days I beat Margus Hallik and lost only a couple of seconds to Tõnis Erm. Both were several times in the top 6 in international championships in the previous year. So I guessed that it would be easy for me to get into the top 6 too, or at least get a top 10 place. As I found out two weeks later, it wasn’t that easy at all. I was quite disappointed with my results. But now, when I look back, a 37th place out of 100 guys wasn’t that bad at all for the first year.”

- Your first results weren’t impressive, really. And we may say almost the same about the results in the next four years. Where did you find the motivation to keep on with MTB Orienteering at the highest level?

“The biggest motivation was the Relay, because we had a good team. In 2007 I didn’t get a place in the team, but the following year I did the first leg and it was a good race. Eventually we finished in 5th place, ensuring a spot in the prize-giving ceremony. Individually I also got tenth place in the Sprint in Poland (2008), with a race with a lot of mistakes. So I realised that without mistakes good placings weren’t impossible, especially in Sprint which isn’t that demanding physically.”

The first medals

In 2012 Lauri again achieved a tenth place in the World Championships – this time in the Long Distance – and, the year after that he won his first medals, and in his home country. The silver in the Sprint and the bronze in the Relay show how much he had improved in such a short time. Maybe one of the secrets of his success was the new bike he had bought in the Spring, a 29er, a mountain bike that is built to use 700c or 622 mm ISO (inside rim diameter) wheels, resulting in an outside tyre diameter of about 29 inches. And of course he was training more and more.

- How important were the World MTBO Championships in Rakvere? What memories do you keep from the event in Estonia?

“For many years we were all waiting for the ‘home’ Championships, and we prepared a lot for the big moment. Unfortunately, seven weeks before the Championships, I crashed when I was biking in a Marathon and I broke my collarbone and had to go for surgery. The doctors recommended me not to do any sport for two months, but after the first month I had healed faster than expected and I started biking, firstly indoors. We had a small Sprint competition a couple of days before the World Championships and I could see that I was able to bike quite well. So I decided to take part, at least in the Sprint, which was held in an urban area and just one small part of the course was away from the streets. During the seven-week break I had a lot of time to rest, also mentally, and to think many things through. When I was on the Sprint start line I felt no pressure at all. To be able to start at all was already a bonus. To get the silver medal was a big satisfaction to me, even knowing that without my one and only mistake that silver could have been a gold.”

Three questions, three answers

- In Rakvere you presented yourself mostly as a sprinter. Is the Sprint your favourite distance? Why?

“When I started attending major events, I wasn’t physically strong enough to get good results in longer distances. And since I had had a lot of years as a foot orienteer, navigation was definitely my stronger side. That’s why the Sprint suited me so well. Currently, I see the same chances to get medals in any of the individual disciplines.”

- Speed is definitely one of the most important parts in this discipline. Is there a connection between your profession as a helicopter pilot and MTBO?

“There is actually quite a big connection between my job and my hobby. Since I only fly with visual contact of the ground, there is a lot of map reading there too. And the speed can be much faster than on a bike.”

- Isn’t MTB Orienteering dangerous?

“It’s a little bit dangerous, as is every sport that includes speed and adrenalin. If you are aware of the danger, conscious of your skills and try not to do anything impossible, then it’s not more dangerous than most other sports.”

MTBO in Estonia

The 2013 World MTB Orienteering Championships were also important for the development of this discipline in Estonia. “Quite important”, says Lauri, adding that “many of the youngsters trained specially for this event. Also, people could really see what MTB Orienteering is about. Since the Sprint and the Relay took place in urban areas, it was easy to reach the spectators,” he remembers.

“Currently we can’t say that the numbers continue to increase. The number of competitors attending local events in Estonia stays at around 50-100 people.” Besides the National Championships, there are just two or three other events each year. So Lauri’s opinion is that “we could have more competitions in Estonia, but the most important thing is that there should be more marketing and promotion. A lot of people go to Adventure Races and Rogaine events, but I think most of them don’t even know that there is a chance to do MTBO as well.”

A “surprisingly good” end to the season

We could see Lauri performing at his best during the final races of the current season. He won two gold medals in the World Cup Final weekend, as many as he managed to achieve during the whole of his career before these races in Lithuania, so he rates his weekend as “surprisingly good.” In the Long Distance his feelings can be described in two words: comfort and confidence. “The terrain was quite similar to what I’m used to in Estonia. I didn’t push very hard and remained concentrated on my navigation. I managed to avoid making any big mistakes, and had the power to keep my pace up until the end. On the last part I could see that it would be easy to make small mistakes, so I took safe route choices, although I knew that by racing straight I could save a couple of seconds,” says Lauri, adding that “it was definitely one of my best races ever.” And one of the best maps he has ever seen, at the same level as “the 2015 Baltic Championships in the Middle Distance, or the open terrain in the World Championships in Hungary in 2012,” he comments.

In the Middle Distance Lauri made several mistakes near the beginning of the course, and was far from thinking he could win, even after a really good second part. Nevertheless he got his second victory in a row, and talks about it as a particular moment that pleased him the most: “I didn’t lose my concentration after the mistakes in the early part of the race, and kept up my hope of victory”. In the Sprint he had a really good race, with only some small mistakes in some areas: “I thought I could win, but I couldn’t do better than coming second,” he says.

One interesting thing to note is that Lauri didn’t do much bike training during the two months between the World Championships and the World Cup Final. Some running, a couple of bike marathons and some rest were the keys to success in “a good event, especially the courses and the maps. I haven’t been biking on such good maps for a long time.” But the organisation is not exempt from criticism: “The organisers could have put some effort into the prizes. To compete for three days in a row and then get a cup and a pencil can be okay in some local events, but not in a World Cup,” in his opinion.

2017 will be my best season ever”

Looking back over the MTBO season, Lauri mentions the “epic rainy Long Distance in France, with big mountains” and “the heat in the Sprint in Portugal” as the most impressive moments. The victory in Lithuania in the second stage and the corresponding second place in the World Cup overall was Lauri’s best moment of the season. The worst? “The 15th control in Portugal, in the Sprint race” where he lost nearly two minutes and (maybe) the silver medal.

- When we talk about the 2016 season, are we talking about your best season ever?

“That’s a difficult question. I have had four really good seasons so far, with something special in each one of them. In the 2013 World Championships in Estonia, two medals despite my late injury. In 2014 the Relay gold in Poland, which we had aimed for for seven years with the same guys. Two individual medals in 2015, including the European title in the Sprint. And now 2nd place overall in the 2016 World Cup. But no, I believe that 2017 will be my best season ever!”

Gold is the goal

Talking about the new season, Lauri is already feeling some good vibes about next year’s World Championships, which will take place in Lithuania. “Something similar to the World Cup in Kaunas, with really challenging terrain and a Sprint with a lot of controls demanding quick decisions” are Lauri’s expectations. But he has also started to set some goals: “Of course, my main goal is to get an individual gold, the distance doesn’t matter. Perhaps gold in the Long Distance could taste even better, because Tõnis Erm doesn’t have that,” he says with a good laugh.

About the other World Cup races – the first round in Austria and the European Championships in France – Lauri’s plans are focused on giving his best. “I expect some epic terrain, both technically and physically. I won’t think about the World Cup overall until the final races,” he says. But he hopes to win medals and to keep a position in the IOF World Ranking top 10: “it doesn’t matter if it’s the 3rd or the 7th place.”

It’s more difficult to reach a podium place now than it was ten years ago”

- How do you see MTBO in general? This was your tenth season at the highest level, and for sure you have a perfect idea about how Orienteering has improved. Are we going in the right direction?

“Yes, I do think we’re going in the right direction. We now have more athletes who can win medals, and I believe it’s more difficult to reach a podium place now than it was ten years ago. But I would like to see more than 100 men and some 70-80 women competing again, and also more nations and bigger teams attending the Championships.”

- If you had the power, would you change anything?

“I’m more a competitor than an organiser, I guess. So at the moment, no ideas for change.”

Some final thoughts

The interview is ending, and Lauri’s thoughts again go through the status of MTBO in his country. “Things could be better with the youngsters, but there are some guys and girls who could do well in the future,” he says, while planning his winter-time enjoying himself doing sport in wild terrain.

Are we going to see Lauri orienteering at this level for the next ten years? The answer is quite sensible, his eyes fixed on his son’s face, quietly asleep: “I’ll take one year at a time. I’ll concentrate only on next year,” he ends.

Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido

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

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