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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 7, 2010
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Me, Justyna and the Estonian Prime Minister
April 7, 2010 By Grzegorz Siwicki   
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Once a niche pursuit for a handful of hardy enthusiasts, cross-country skiing has exploded in popularity in Poland-thanks to huge quantities of snow this year and the Olympic successes of the nation's darling, Justyna Kowalczyk. The Warsaw Voice's Grzegorz Siwicki reflects on his-and now the country's love affair with this demanding sport.

My adventure with cross-country skiing began decades ago. I grew up in the northeast of Poland where the winters were long and snowy, and skis were sometimes the most reliable means of transportation. I would strap on a pair of skis and glide across the snow-covered fields to enjoy the outdoors in the winter months. Ever since then cross-country, or Nordic, skiing has given me a sense of freedom and a way to avoid crowded ski resorts and lift lines.
After I moved to Warsaw in the late 1980s, I stashed away my skis for several years because I was too busy with work and family, but the passion eventually resurfaced. When I hit the trails again, I was one of a few cross-country skiers in the city and rarely saw other people on skis in my local forest. But that changed this winter. Each weekend hundreds of new skiers would dot the landscape, panting and heaving as they struggled to propel themselves along. While training, I was stopped every now and again by novice skiers asking me for tips.
The chief reason for this popular upsurge of interest in the sport is Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk. One of the world's top cross-country skiers, she claimed three medals at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada, in February, adding to a previous list of world championship titles and World Cup wins. At Vancouver, Kowalczyk grabbed the bronze in the 15 km pursuit, silver in the individual sprint, and gold in the 30 km classic, becoming Poland's first winter Olympic gold medalist after a hiatus of 38 years. The media has gone wild over Kowalczyk, reporting extensively on her sporting successes and private life. Cross-country skiing has received unprecedented attention in this country.
An avid skier, I sometimes find myself seeking the adrenaline rush and excitement that come with competitive racing. I have taken part in several cross-country events-without ever hoping to make it big. My skiing expertise and endurance are too flimsy to count for something in this demanding sport. My goal is to compete against myself, rather than worrying about the rest of the pack.
This winter I took part in Bieg Piastów, Poland's largest cross-country skiing marathon, which was held in the southwestern mountain resort of Jakuszyce on the Polish-Czech border March 6-7.
I competed together with 4,000 or so other skiers, both competitive athletes and amateurs, from 25 countries, including a number of Vancouver Olympians, as well as one Andrus Ansip, who happens to be the prime minister of Estonia-a small country big on cross-country skiing. One of Kowalczyk's chief waxing technicians (the Polish champion attributes 50 percent of her success to correct waxing of her skis) comes from Estonia.
Ansip came to Jakuszyce a day before the competition from Warsaw, where he discussed Polish-Estonian relations and the single European currency, in addition to cross-country skiing, with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk.
Ansip competed in the 50 km classic race on Saturday, March 6. He enrolled for the race like any other skier, declaring his place of residence as "Tartu," with nothing indicating that he was the prime minister. He finished 282nd overall and 73rd in the 50-59 age group, clocking an excellent time of 3:04:01.
Another high-profile competitor, 79-year-old Hannes Larsson of France, head of the International Association of Worldloppet Skiers, has completed 250 ski marathons in his life and had won two Masters events for old timers this year before arriving in Jakuszyce. "I'm slower with each passing year, but this doesn't alter the fact that I can still do two races over the weekend in Jakuszyce, the 50 km classic on Saturday and the 50 km freestyle on Sunday," Larsson said.
I took part in the 30 km freestyle (actually the course was shortened to 26 km for technical reasons a few days before the race), finishing 172nd overall and 32nd in the 40-49 age group, with a time of 1:48:55. I managed to improve my performance by almost 30 minutes over last year, and hope to hone my skills further in the future. I can't wait until next year's Bieg Piastów. The snow in Warsaw may now be gone, but I don't intend to wait a whole year to practice again. I have a pair of roller skis-skis with wheels on which I can skim over snowless forest paths-waiting for me at home.
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