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Athlete Profile: Olavi Hirvonen

by Ron Farra

When Olavi Hirvonen, owner of Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center was an infant, he was sent to live in Finland with his grandmother. “She believed in dreams,” Olavi recalled in a recent interview. So it is not surprising that he too, is a strong believer in the power of his own psychic dreams. But, I am getting ahead of the story. Let us begin at the beginning.

Age:    80
Family:    Wife, Ann; Daughter Leila, age 25
Residence:    Northville
Main Sport:    Cross-Country Skiing
It was 1930 in Montreal, Canada when the parents of eight-month-old Olavi Hirvonen decided that the child would have a better chance of survival in their homeland and sent baby Olavi to be raised by his maternal grandmother in the tiny city of Koivisto, Finland. When his mother came to visit him, five years later, he was already showing signs of athletic prowess especially on skis. Olavi skied along behind his uncle, played on skis, and like most Scandinavian children, skied to and from school during the long winter months. “I remember using my uncle’s hand-me-down skis and poles. The poles had great big baskets, but no handles,” said Olavi.

Soon the boy began to enjoy racing on skis with the other Finnish children. Olavi, who turns 80 this month, still remembers winning his first ski race. “I took home the prize, a wooden ruler,” he recalls. His competitive spirit and athletic talents continued to blossom with skiing, running, soccer, log-rolling and Finnish baseball.

Olavi’s childhood home was on an island where he grew to enjoy nature’s gifts. “The water was my home. The fishing was great and I loved to help my 16-year old uncle with repairs to the family home damaged during the war,” he reported. At 17, he served in the Finnish army for six months. In 1949, at age 19, he decided to join his mother who had moved to New York City from Montreal.

With other Scandinavian immigrants, Olavi soon found places to ski and ski race in the New York area. “I was 21 when I got married and three months later received a ‘Greetings’ from the US Army,” reported Olavi. After basic training he was sent to Alaska where he served as an instructor for Army arctic indoctrination school. His students were officers of all ranks in the Army. He skied days and nights with his men, pulling supply sleds, building snow caves and arctic lean-tos, and learning other winter survival techniques. Olavi attained American citizenship, and lived off-base with his wife and infant son, Esa, who was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. After two years of military service, the Hirvonens moved to Vermont in pursuit of Olavi’s business dreams. They leased a ski lodge in Jeffersonville, near Smugglers’ Notch, and worked diligently seven days a week to provide quality services for 50 guests.

Olavi continued to enter cross-country ski races on winter weekends and in 1959 was tapped by the US Ski Association for a berth on the US Nordic Ski Team. “I was proud to be selected to represent the United States, and was eligible for racing in the upcoming Olympics at Squaw Valley, Calif., but I could not take time off to train with the ski team,” remembers Olavi. “I had a family and a business to run. I packed a ski trail behind the lodge and trained myself at night which turned out to be good for my agility and balance,” said the determined ski team racer. Olavi arrived at the US Ski Team training camp in Colorado just a week before the 1960 Olympic Games tryouts, overcame the difficulties of skiing at high altitude, and bested all but one of his teammates in the tryouts for the Olympic squad.

Olavi was confident in his ability to perform well at the Olympics and told the ski team coach “I feel good enough to race in all of them” when asked which of the Olympic races he preferred. Though known to be best in the 30K, he was assigned instead to race the 15K, an event he had not trained for. Then he had the bad fortune to break a ski in the 50-kilometer and finished a disappointed 26th.

After skiing in the Olympics Games, Olavi managed a restaurant, worked at Stowe Ski Center, and spent several years in the construction business while continuing to ski recreationally with his wife and young son. Like his father, Esa loved to cross-country ski and became quite proficient at skiing and shooting. He was named to the US Biathlon Team, but a tragic motorcycle accident claimed his life weeks before he was to report to the biathlon training camp. Many years later Esa came to Olavi in a dream. “In the morning I told my wife that I had a vision of holding a map of New York State while our son put his finger on the map and pointed to the Amsterdam exit off the Thruway.”

Olavi forgot about the dream until one spring afternoon when they were driving on the Thruway and decided to get off at Amsterdam to travel north on NY Route 30. “I was hoping to find a big piece of land for a ski touring center, when I spotted the sign for the hamlet of Benson, and felt compelled to turn off the highway onto that tiny road. In fact, twice we were driving north on Route 30 looking for property when something required me to turn onto County Road 6 (Benson Road). A resident told us about a nearby camp for sale. It had 250 acres with a beautiful lake and numerous buildings. It sounded perfect, surely, a dream come true.”

The rest they say is history. Indeed, Olavi swears that his son had been to visit Grant Cottages, the summer camp in Benson that was to become Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center. Olavi was able to negotiate a fair price and purchased the property in 1978. He was remarried several years later to the former Ann Macartney and continued to renovate the cottages – “tupas” in Finnish. They expanded the business to become one of the “Best Nordic Ski Resorts in America” and winner of numerous Top Ten awards for excellence.

Ann had been an active member of the Capital District Ski Touring Association, when she took lessons and skied with the former Olympian. “Olavi and I skied together on occasion for a couple years. He watched my skiing and gave me lots of great skiing tips. Eventually, we went on a date,” recalls Ann. “I really wasn’t looking for a partner then, but here I am happily married to Olavi and to our wonderful vacation resort, 25 years later.”

Olavi works seven days a week at Lapland Lake and grooms the trails himself daily, depending on the conditions. It doesn’t give him much time to ski for pleasure but he still has a passion for the sport and for sharing it with others.

Olavi Hirvonen is certain that he received guidance from his son Esa in a dream directing him to the magnificent property and lake at the foot of Cathead Mountain in Benson. “My daydream about owning a Nordic ski center became a reality and a successful adventure because my son came to me in my night dream. Like my dear Finnish grandmother who raised me, I believe with all my heart that Esa guided me to the fulfillment of my real dream.”

Ron Farra (rfarra@nycap.rr.com) lives in Saratoga Springs and enjoys snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, biking and kayaking. He is the co-author of Winter Trails New York: The Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Trails with his wife, Johanna.