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Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi was the outstanding figure at the 1984 Winter Games, winning all three individual Nordic skiing events and a bronze medal in the relay. The 28-year-old Finn entered the 1984 Games having been written off by journalists. But she was to prove them wrong in spectacular style in Yugoslavia.
Tall and athletic, Kirvesniemi was born into a family of cross-country skiers and raised on a farm in Simpele, near Finland’s border with the USSR. She took up skiing aged five and began competing in races a year later.
She made her first appearance at the Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck in 1976, finishing 22nd in the 10km classical event. Two years later she won a gold medal at the 1978 World Championships, but at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980 she could only manage a ninth-place finish.
Competing under her maiden name of Hämäläinen, and describing herself as a “tough guy,” she entered the 1984 Winter Games as the foremost cross-country skier in her country.
In spite of her talents her name didn’t figure among the medal contenders prior to the Games. But she drew on her reserves of resilience and determination to pull of a trio of stunning and completely unexpected victories.
Racing against Raisa Smetanina of the USSR – a triple gold-medallist who dominated the sport and went on to become the first woman to win 10 Olympic honours – Kirvesniemi won the 10km with a time of 31:44.2, beating her illustrious Soviet rival into second place.
Three days later she added to her tally when her time of 17.04 in the 5km clinched a second victory. After claiming her third gold medal by beating Smetanina by 41 seconds in the physically shattering 20km race, making its Olympic debut, the reluctant heroine leapt over a fence and ran away from Finnish journalists eager to report on her sensational triple win.
They finally cornered her and she submitted to their interview requests. But she exacted her revenge on her doubters in the Press, saying: “A hundred times they’ve written that I would never become anybody. I wanted to show people that I am somebody and that if I didn’t do well, there was always a reason.”
Kirvesniemi also won a bronze medal at the Games as part of the Finnish 4x5km women’s relay team. She added a relay bronze medal at the Calgary Games in 1988, and after failing to medal at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France she added a further two third-place finishes at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. The seven-time medal winner also holds the distinction of being the oldest woman medallist in an individual event after taking bronze in the 30km event at Lillehammer.