13-year-old Steamboat skier at home in Finland | SteamboatToday.com

13-year-old Steamboat skier at home in Finland

For now, Nordic combined is all about having fun for 13-year-old Niklas Malacinski, and the Steamboat Springs skier has been doing plenty of that.

"You never have to wake him up for 7 a.m. training," said his mother, Essi Kenttala. "He's always excited to go. He's so into it, which is the best thing a parent can see in their kid."

Malacinski shares the same dream as many young Steamboat Springs skiers. He wants to go to the Olympics. As he pushes toward that dream, however, he will face questions few of his fellow Colorado competitors will.

It's an easy answer for many Steamboat athletes, but it could be a complicated one for Malacinski. In those Olympic dreams, which nation does he represent?

Kenttala was born in Rovaniemi, Finland, an Arctic Circle city where skiing is a way of life and sports like ski jumping and Nordic combined are as popular as football is in the United States.

Regular visits home have allowed Malacinski, raised in Steamboat, to broaden his perspective in the sport, training with young Finnish skiers and competing in a series of European Nordic combined events.

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Most recently, Malacinski recorded strong results last weekend in Nordic Combined Youth Cup events in Vuokatti, Finland, placing fourth on the first day and fifth on the second.

"I wasn't too far out from third place," he said. "European skiers are really fast."

Trips to Finland are more than a vacation or a visit to family for Malacinski.

Thursday, for instance, he mixed training in with school, which he's attended in Finland before and recently started for the fall semester. There was math homework and geography to do, plus coordination and strength training and some work on the town's ski jumps, all covered in plastic for year-round use.

When they train for skiing in the summer, they can actually use skis, working in a 1-kilometer-long tunnel maintained through the year with actual snow.

It has its ups and downs, Malacinski said.

"The first lap is fun, but from there, it gets boring, because you do the same thing over and over again," he said. "There are no windows. It's just like a pipe."

Still, the training is valuable.

Sports-minded school children also dedicate one week in six to a sports academy, where, while keeping up with their school homework, they spend more of their day focused on their events.

More competitions remain for Malacinski this summer. He and fellow Steamboater Canden Wilkinson, joining the family in Finland, will travel to compete in another event in Oberstdorf, Germany.

Malacinski is hoping to continue to show progress there, in what will be his third year competing. He's struggled to finish in the top half of the field the past several years, but he's skied better than he ever has this last winter and laid down strong performances in the Vuokatti races.

"He was always jumping well in Finland, but he used to come in dead last in the races," Kenttala said. "He was discouraged, wondering, 'Am I really that far behind in America?' This time around, though, he's catching up. There are still a few kids who are faster, but it's not as obvious as it was."

Malacinski isn't ready to think deeply about what it all means for the future.

Finland has more than just a strong Nordic combined tradition. It's had strong national results in recent years, as well, and is coming off a very strong season on the World Cup circuit, where two young Finnish skiers finished the winter top 10 in the world.

Despite logging plenty of time in Finland, however, the United States remains home.

"He goes back and forth. I feel like he's very connected in Steamboat with a small community with a lot of sport, and he spends most of the year there," Kenttala said. "I feel like he's leaning that way. Plus, right now, it might be easier getting to the U.S. team."

That's a decision for another day, however.

This week, there are plenty of other things for Malacinski to focus on. School's busy. He's taught five different languages there — Russian, Swedish and German in addition to Finnish and English. And there's training, something he never needs to be awakened for.

"I'm jumping really well right now," he said. "It's really fun for me."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@Steamboat Today.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9.

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