Athlete of the Week: Ilkka Herola (FIN)
With the Norwegian venues of Trondheim and Oslo in one week, this second-but-last competition "weekend" of the season 2013/14 definitely had a different rhythm than the other stops before and it also had some surprises in terms of which athletes made spectators and media alike sit up and take notice.
While Johannes Rydzek is developing into the athlete to beat at the end of the World Cup tour and also Magnus Moan was out hunting for serial podium places, two athletes set their career bests at the prestigious King's Cup competition at Holmenkollen: Francois Braud and Ilkka Herola. And while Braud's first podium result ever definitely demands a big shout out, the honours of Athlete of the Week will go to 18-year-old Ilkka Herola from Finland who brought the Finnish team back on the map of Nordic Combined after a couple of tough years with his fourth rank in Oslo.
Herola, who made his World Cup debut in Lahti in 2012, steadily improved in his first full World Cup season last winter and had been a candidate for Top 20 ranks at any time during this season, positioning himself as the (reluctant) team leader in the Finnish team. "Actually, I am a bit sad that I am the best and that I am the only Finnish athlete in the Top Ten this year. Maybe it would also be easier to be only the second-best. (laughs) But the situation is like this now and I will do my best and try not to feel too much pressure from it", Herola said before the Olympics.
And while he definitely delivered steady Top 20 results in spite of the pressure with his 14th and 16th rank in Sochi, Herola commented in his typical dry manner afterwards: "So after all, my level was not high enough for taking the Top 10, but I'm still stupid enough to believe that four in years I can make enough progress!" After getting sick with the flu after Sochi which took him out of the competition at his home venue in Lahti, Herola probably did not think that instead of four years, he just would have to wait about one week, at least for a World Cup Top Ten result.
Growing stronger and stronger on the jumping hill, Herola started as second in Oslo and skied a strong and confident race in the leading group together with top athletes like Johannes Rydzek and Magnus Moan and in the end just narrowly missed out on his first podium result as fourth. And while his collection of fourth places at the Junior World Championships at Liberec last winter were reason for a lot of disappointment for the resident of Siilinjärvi, this fourth place was something he relished as you could read on his facebook page: "Not bad at all! This time it's not such a big disappointment to finish in fourth place."
With his level of performance and confidence pointing straight upwards, it will certainly be interesting to watch Herola's development in the years to come. And as the 18-year-old has all the time in the world to learn and develop, it is certainly appropriate to share Herola's "stupid" belief that in four years' time, he might be strong enough for a Top Ten result at Pyeong Chang… or maybe rather claim a spot on the "to watch list" for a medal.