“They are both beginners in luge so I don't expect them to place among the top finishers; but what I do want to see is two good runs from each of them and a big smile on their faces after they finish,” Maija says. “I want them to enjoy the atmosphere and this amazing event, which is a great place to find motivation for their next goals in their sports careers.”
She should know. While Lillehammer 2016 will be Maija’s first Olympic Games as a coach, it will be her fourth Olympic experience, after three trips to the Olympic Winter Games as an athlete. Maija can also point to two World Championship bronze medals and one European gold medal. Not a bad haul for someone who didn’t even start playing sport until she turned 14.
A dancer, a pianist and a violinist growing up in her native Latvia, Maija lacked the motivation to even try luge, which she considered to be a “crazy sport.” But at the urging of her father, she gave it a go. “Just once,” she recalls telling him. “And after I did it, this one run, I thought, ‘It's not so bad and not so crazy at all.’ After that I enrolled in a sport school and thus began my 15-year journey as an athlete in the sport of luge.”
It was during these “15 beautiful years” that the now 32-year-old says she discovered her love for exploring and learning new things, something she now encourages her students to embrace as well. “I met so many great people, and most of them are still my friends. I have seen so many countries, learned so much about other cultures, learnt other languages – these years made me the person I am today,” she says. “My love for exploring and trying new things is a never-ending process that began when I decided to become an athlete.”
She also coaches her young athletes to be sensible when approaching their athletic careers. Rather than being austere, Maija suggests that the best route to becoming a top athlete is simply to live a healthy lifestyle: eat well, get enough sleep, exercise and be passionate and smart about what you do. And above all else, enjoy what you are doing.
Maija became the head coach of the Club de Bobsleigh Luge Skeleton de Macôt La Plagne in France after her retirement as an athlete in 2013. Like her transition from music to sport in her early teens, Maija was initially sceptical of her transition from athlete to coach, but in the end it also brought her unexpected joy.
“When I was a slider, I always said, ‘I could never be a coach because it is very hard’, but here I am,” she says. “I really enjoy my work, but I was right – it is hard. But when I see the happiness in my athletes’ eyes after a good run on the track it makes me feel amazing! It is much better than winning a medal myself!”
In Lillehammer, Maija will continue to inspire, guide and support her two athletes while attempting to keep the smiles on their faces. As a coach, she says, it is important to do everything she can to help her athletes become the best they can be, to be a light hand to push them towards their goals and to believe in their dreams. And don’t forget the enjoyment factor!
“My biggest goal is to bring my athletes to a level where, when they slide, they enjoy the run from start to finish,” she concludes. “It takes a lot of effort – physical, psychological, technical – to reach that level of confidence, but it is a very interesting way which leads to big success.”