Finnish connection leads U into Big Tens

Matthew Cross

Gophers pole vaulter Vesa Rantanen is known to shoot hoops from time to time during track practice at the east end of the University Field House.
His excuse is that basketball is a training regiment, but Finland natives aren’t exactly known for their prowess on the hard court. They are, however, becoming more recognized for their excellence in track.
Rantanen and his roommate Glenn Lindqvist, who is a freshman from Aland, Finland, are prime examples. The two are expected to help the Gophers’ chances this weekend at the Big Ten Indoor Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
Both athletes came to Minnesota after having stellar high school careers in Scandinavia. Lindqvist was the 1995 European Junior Champion in the decathlon and took third in the decathlon in 1994 at the World Junior Championships.
Rantanen was the Finnish 18-and-under heptathlon champion and won the pole vaulting title at the 1995 European Junior Championships.
When they came to Minnesota, adjusting to greasy American food and speaking English were the hardest parts. Both athletes said they used to get tired after trying to concentrate on what people were saying all day. But living together has given them a release.
“It would be much different to live with an American,” Lindqvist said. “I would know more people, but (Rantanen and I) think the same about American things, and we have a lot of the same opinions.”
Rantanen said the hardest thing to grasp was the way American people think of themselves.
“My first impression was that everything was so great,” Rantanen said. “But I noticed that Americans think of themselves being in the center of the world. We think we’re on the side. Close to Russia, you know. That’s hard to understand.”
Coach Phil Lundin thinks the two stars are capable of adapting well to their new environment, and he is hoping the athletes bring a higher confidence level to the team.
“It’s exciting and fun to have them here,” Lundin said. “And they raise the level of expectations for the team.”
For the Big Ten championships this weekend, Lundin has few expectations because of the overall youth of the team. Still, Lundin hopes to finish in the top half of the conference.
“We’ve got guys who are ranked in the top five, so we’ve got kids who could be Big Ten champs,” Lundin said. “The opportunities are there, but you’ve got to be guardedly optimistic.”
One reason to be happy is former Gophers running back Chris Darkins will be running in the 55-meter dash.
Darkins ran it in 6.4 seconds last weekend in the first heat, but missed the final because of a charity banquet. Still, 6.4 seconds is fast enough to put him among the top few athletes in the field.
Rantanen will also be among the top three in the pole vault. Lundin is very pleased with the progress Rantanen has made in the past few months.
“I’ve never seen a natural jumper with such good technique,” Lundin said. “He was obviously well-coached in Finland, but Vesa has come in and made a big improvement on the vault.”
Rantanen is six inches above where he was at this time last year, and he only needs about four more inches to qualify for the Summer Olympics. He would need to vault about 18 feet, 6 inches, and Lundin said Rantanen has the talent and focus to make it.
“Of course, it’s been a dream to get there for many years,” Rantanen said. “Last year I was disappointed because I didn’t get to the World Championships. I’m not training right now to get to the Olympics, but it’s a dream.”
The prospect of Rantanen going to the Olympics excites Lundin, but the coach quickly put the situation in perspective.
“He’s still a freshman,” he said. “He’s young and he’s under a lot of pressure, so it’s easy to get frustrated. In all likelihood, he could go to Atlanta. But I can still beat him in H-O-R-S-E.”