Strength is a curious thing. There’s all kinds of it, but you never really know how strong you are until you need it. That’s not what the man said, but that’s what he was telling me as he was packing his javelin into the 1998 Nissan that was parked next to our Volvo.
There was his great-uncle, who was only 170 centimeters tall, and even if 170 centimeters used to be a lot taller than today, he was demonstrably strong even back then because his jacket needed an 80-centimeter wide back piece. Not that all his strength helped him fighting against the stream one spring day.
“The ice had melted so there was a lot of water running over the log he and his brother, my great-grandfather, walked on. Somehow he slipped and the current was so strong it took him under the log where he got stuck in a tree branch,” said the man, waving his car keys at me.
“They found him three days later. Strange incident, really. He was just 36.”
Then there was his father, a war veteran who fell ill right after it, but recovered and lived to be 89. The war years were tough, and needed other kinds of strength. Inner strength. Grit. Stamina.
“I once counted that I had six patches on top of each other on my pants. You know,” he said, letting the “you know” just hang in the air. It was a heavy one.
“I guess that’s when I fell in love with javelin. It’s funny how some things stick to your memory. I remember walking back from school – and I had one of those five-kilometer walks to school – and throwing snowballs at light posts, competing on who’d get his mark at the top,” he said, with a big smile.
That wasn’t the memory that has stuck to his mind.
“I threw once so hard that all the buttons in my pants flew out,” he said, with a laugh.
That was the memory. How he had to walk home as the winner of the competition, holding his pants up with his hand.
A year later, he competed in javelin for the first time, as an eight-year-old. Result: 22,45. Since then, he’s been out there throwing those javelins, first longer and longer and longer, hitting the 90-meter mark at his best, before the javelin started to land closer and closer to where he had thrown it.
He became a coach, and helped some of Finland’s greatest javelin throwers to get their careers started, and in a couple of weeks, he’ll attend Finland’s biggest javelin festival for the 43rd time.
“I’ve missed three. Once, I was in Iraq, and another time, I had just had an operation. I don’t remember why I missed the third time,” he said.
He leaned on his knees. He’d been standing up for twenty minutes, jumping from one story to another, while I sat in my car, on my way to a local coffeeshop to get a cappuccino while Son and Daughter were climbing trees at a nearby adventure park.
“It’s tough to stand up for a long time. I’ve had sixteen operations on my foot. Something to do with the nerves. I’d need to do another one but it’d cost me 40,000 because I’d have to pay it out of my own pocket. You know, they don’t care about us old people,” he said.
He told me his elbows and shoulders were in great shape, but then rolled up his sleeve to show me a long scar across his right shoulder.
“Well, I just had this done but it had nothing to do with javelin. If you throw right, it’s not rough on you,” he said.
Then he pulled up his pants for the third time, and took a couple of steps and showed me how to throw the javelin right. Straight, right next to your ear.
“It’s easy,” he said.
He still trains and he still competes. He had been on the local field but had to cut his practice short because the janitor was working, but he’ll be back. He has to. He’s not happy with his results and being 80 years old is no excuse to him.
“I know the problem, too. I have six special dumbbell exercises that I do but because the spring was so cold I had to train indoors more than I had intended.
“Right now, I’m simply too strong,” he said.