Kalle Palander - the beginning of a new kind of life

12 November 2012 20:53
Kalle
Kalle -
FIS

LEVI, Finland – Sunday’s men’s slalom race in Levi marked the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one. Almost 16 years after entering his first World Cup race, a slalom in Madonna di Campiglio (ITA), Sunday Kalle Palander made his way down a World Cup slope for a last time. A short while later, Santeri Paloniemi, an 18 years old younger teammate earned his first World Cup points.

Dressed in one of his old racing attires, the 35 year old Finnish skier opened the starting gate for a last time before skiing down the Levi Black course. Along his last run, Palander stopped to greet former team members and FIS official before being greeted by one of his daughters, Oda Sofia, and members of the Finnish Ski Association.

Palander has had his fair share of injuries during his long career and was just coming back his latest one,  a shin stress fracture that kept him off the slopes for eight months, when at the first race of the 2011/2012 season in Soelden something broke once again – this time it was his cross ligament.

“I broke the cross ligament in my right knee at the Season Opening Giant Slalom in October 2011 and had surgery on the knee that November,” Kalle recalled what turned out to be the injury which would determine the end of his career.

 “When that ligament broke, I was thinking that I might have had enough of it all, Six surgeries in five years left their mark and I though that was it… But, I also still had some motivation left, so I once again started to train. I started training again in January but after a month or so I knew that wasn’t it.”

It’s never easy coming back form a serious injury, but as long as an athlete has the willpower to put in the work, focus on the final result, it’s possible. Palander admits he was struggling to find what it took to be ready for the new season.

“I lost that fire which you need in this sport. I kept training a little, and then stopping for a while, than I would pick up training again…it went on like that almost until June. Some days I was a full time skier, and some days I wouldn’t train at all,” he explains the months of indecision.

“I knew I might be able to train enough to be in the top 30, but without that internal fire, without dedication to physical training I knew I wouldn’t be standing on the podium again. That’s when I knew that was it, it was time to let go.”

Prior to the new season Palander made the decision to not attempt another comeback. After 196 World Cup starts, 30 World Cup podiums, 14 victories and a Slalom World Championships gold medal, he knew he had given all he had to the sport and when looking back at his long career, he almost seems surprised by all the accomplishments.

“When I was growing up in the ’80 and ’90, alpine skiing was not big in Finland. Coming from a flat place in Southern Lapland like I do, it’s crazy to think what I accomplished over the years. I started my racing career on a mountain that had a 24-meter vertical drop. My father would film from the bottom and we didn’t need a radio to communicate since all one could set was eight turns,” Palander recalls how his ski career started.

“We had a Swedish TV channel and Stenmark was a hero for our family. My father always said that I decided to be a World Champion at the age of 13 – it wasn’t true,” he laughs. “He decided that while I realized it actually might happen only when I was 18.”

Palander, belongs to the generation of guys which made their first World Cup steps on the old, long slalom skis. His first great result, the World Championship gold medal was won on them and when times and skis changed – he was lost, but quickly adapted and in four years he was back at the top of the podium.

“Whenever I had troubles in my career I always came back stronger. I became slalom World Champion in 1999, it was somehow too early for me, too early for the Finnish alpine skiing and no one was ready for that. The attention, the money…,” he recalls his early days. “Also, it was then that the slalom skis changed and I was really bad on the new, short skis. I needed to change everything in my skiing and in 2001, two years after earning the World Champion title I was ranked 36th in slalom and became the ‘Loser World Champion’. It seemed that my title was just luck and people laughed at me until I finally won the slalom in Kitzbuchel in 2003. I was so proud of proving everyone wrong!”

Leaving the sport without any regrets is what every athlete hopes for, Palander has one the day he is retiring.

“I am happy to look back and know that I have accomplished always a little more then what was expected… I might have just one regret, not having won an Olympic medal – that would have rounded up my trophy collection. Would have been great for my career!”

 Off skis since the knee injury in October 2012, Palander took his farewell run seriously and decided to train a little in order to make it down the Levi Black in style one last time.

“I was back on skis after a year on Saturday and it was so much fun, I realized that I have been so lucky to call this sport my job. I knew I needed to hit a couple of gates before my final run on Sunday, and after 15 gates I realized there is no more quickness in my legs. I had no idea how I would manage the full one minute slope!”

He managed without problems, and if it wouldn’t have been for the outdated outfit and bib, one could have thought for the moment that it was a comeback instead of a farewell. But Palander had already started a new kind of life, far from the busy schedule of the World Cup Tour.

“I recently got twins, Romeo and Mona Lisa, they are 2.5 months old now,” the proud father of five said.  “There are four kids living with my wife and me, I also have a daughter in Norway and our Audi Q7 became too small for all of us. We have to travel with two cars.”

Healthy, with no titanium plates and screws in his body, Palander is happy to be able to enjoy sports and pass his love for it to his kids.

“No skiing for my kids, I have all planned it out. The twins will be tennis players and the goal is to win Wimbledon. It’s the most prestigious tournament so I will coach them to excel on grass,” he jokes when asked about his plans for the kids.

He might be interested in coaching them, but it seems we won’t be seeing him as a skiing coach anytime soon.”

They are pushing me to become a coach,” he says. “I feel it’s too early for that and I want to focus on my family now. I am done with all the traveling. I am aware that I could give a lot to skiing in Finland as a coach but first I want to do something else. I have been more involved with my Halti clothing line, I will be working with my old sponsors for sure for the next two years and I might be working for the Finnish TV at the World Championships in Schladming this February.”

Will he miss something, is there something that only skiing was able to give?

“It’s that risk that you have in skiing… I am still trying to find that feeling outside of the sport. It is difficult to find that type of work, which would give you the thrill of crossing the finish line, looking up and knowing you are the best…”

There might not be anything as thrilling as skiracing but life is not bad on the other side and I believe the whole skiing community wishes you and your family all the best in whichever new adventures you may undertake in the future.

Thank you for all you gave to the sport!

by Ana Jelusic