Jukka Keskisalo after his surprise European Steeplechase victory in Gothenburg (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Keskisalo, in search of historic Montreal mark

In Rome, Italy (11) European 3000m Steeplechase champion Jukka Keskisalo’s 8:22.35 sixth place finish behind the World (Brimin Kipruto) and Olympic (Ezekiel Kemboi) Steeplechase champions from Kenya gave the first indication of a return to form for the Finn following a 2007 season which was ruined when he sustained a hamstring injury, which necessitated an operation last autumn.

The 27-year-old Finn who has a personal best of 8:16.74 (4th, Zurich 2006) is fully focused on the historic national record of 8:12.60 which has stood since 1976.

Historic mission

Keskisalo is the latest in a long-line of legendary distance running champions from Finland, dating back to the feats of double Olympic champion Hannes Kolehmainen in 1912, though perhaps a more appropriate reference point is twice Olympic Steeple winner Volmari Iso-Hollo (1932/36).

An Olympic victory is one of the most important achievements that any Finn can attain in his or her lifetime, with national adoration virtually guaranteeing an income for life. And the prize for the next Finnish track and field athlete to win a gold is greater than ever before as it would bring Finland’s total of Olympic athletics titles to 50.

Never discount a Finn!

True, World Javelin Throw champion Tero Pitkamaki would have most people’s money as the athlete most likely to achieve that accolade in Beijing but as athletics history tells you should never discount a Finnish distance runner!

All of Keskisalo’s European opponents did exactly that at the 2006 European Championships in Gothenburg. They overlooked Keskisalo, forgetting that he already had an international pedigree. He had taken seventh place in the 2000 World Junior Championships and as a senior in 2003 had taken bronze at the European Cup Final and European U23 Championships before finishing ninth in the Paris World Championships in his then PB of 8:17.72.

Two years of frustrating back and leg injuries followed that Paris final, but both the Finnish Federation and their main sponsor Sampo, an insurance company, kept faith, and thanks to their funding Keskisalo was always able to train abroad during the Finnish winter. His general fitness and endurance were kept at a high level throughout these years of injury by a lot of pool work and cycling.

Guided by Finland’s head distance running head coach, Tommy Ekblom, who was himself a 1983 World Championships finalist at the 3000m Steeplechase (and has a PB of 8:19.40), Keskisalo’s decision to travel alone to Australia in the winter of 2005/06, rather than to Finnish team training camps in South Africa and Portugal, was a crucial part of his preparations for the European Championship that coming summer.

Keskisalo’s 8:22 finish at the IAAF GP in Helsinki in July of 2006 told the athlete, coach and a few pundits that his preparations were on course, and while he worried many in the Finnish press pack with his fastest loser qualification for the final in Gothenburg, Kesiksalo at the time succinctly explained in the mixed zone, “why expend any extra energy?!”

The Finn’s smart tactical brain was to serve him well in the final too. A slowly run race fell into the lap of a runner with a 3:42 PB for 1500m. Taking advantage of a funereal early pace - the first kilometre took nearly 3 minutes - and staying at the rear of the field until the last 500 metres, Keskisalo took the last lap with a sub 59 second spurt which overtook his competitors one by one. Once in the lead he kicked hard again coming off the final barrier to deter a counter-attack by long time leader José Luis Blanco of Spain and secured gold in 8:24.89.

Within days Keskisalo was on the European one-day circuit securing fourth place in Zurich in a PB of 8:16.74, and he was later to finish fourth for Europe at the IAAF World Cup in Athens.

Coach Ekblom who is from the Lydiard school of training was first drawn to Keskisalo’s talent when off the back of only 6000km of training in 2000, the then 19-year-old had run 1:50.53 for the 800m.

“That for me was very impressive,” confirmed Ekblom.

“Keskisalo is very light in his sunning style, a good advertisement for distance runners everywhere.”

Not surprisingly Keskisalo was voted Finnish Sports Personality of the Year in 2006, a spot of annual national recognition which in recent decades had largely been reserved for Formula 1 and rally driving champions, nordic skiers and jumpers, and of course javelin throwers.

A real competitor

But what’s it like to follow in the footsteps of Finnish long distance running greats like Nurmi, Ritola, Iso-Hollo, Viren?

“I don’t think of it in that way,” commented Keskisalo. “It had been more than 20 years on the track since a Finnish distance runner had won something major. In that way it is very special to me (being European champion) because I don’t remember those days (1970s)”…Keskisalo was born in 1981.

“I like to compete in everything. I played and enjoyed ice hockey and football and love to win. The easiest and simplest way I found for my body to do that was as a long distance runner,” smiled Keskisalo.

“If I had a hero it was Ari Suhonen (Finnish record holder for 800m 1:44.10 – 1989), and my first games I remember were the Rome World Champs of 1987, when” – Keskisalo laughs – “Tommy’s (Ekblom) career was on the way down.”

“When ever I was playing sports with my friends I always imagined myself to be Ari Suhonen, and then when I grew up I read a lot about Pekka Vasala (1972 Olympic 1500m champion) and he was also someone I admired.”

Lessening the pressure of expectation

Is a global track medal possible?

“A medal yes but a gold, I don’t know?” says Keskisalo. It’s a remark which prompts Ekblom to snap back, “that’s the wrong way to think!”

A slightly chastened Keskisalo quickly clarifies: “to win the European Championships was my biggest dream, now it’s an Olympic medal.”

One senses that in a country which is Olympics mad that Keskisalo’s responses are tempered by the need to keep the pressure of media expectations off his preparations.

A definite goal is the Finnish record of 8:12.60 which was set by Tapio Kantanen, the 1972 Olympic bronze medallist, at the following Olympic Games in Montreal where he finished in fourth place.

Keskisalo has the temperament and the talent to surpass that mark in 2008 and if he can reach sub-8:10 territory then an Olympic or a World top-8 placing in the future is likely and even a podium position should not be discounted.

You doubt that? Then look at the numerous Finnish names which adorn track’s history books.

Never discount a Finnish distance runner. Too many have, to their cost!

Chris Turner for the IAAF

NOTE. Keskisalo next races in Stockholm on 22 July