Eight hours and seven time zones away on a farm outside of Illo, Finland, Minna Haronoja’s parents sit and wait.
Their daughter is thousands of miles away in America, a strange and foreign land to them. They have heard all of the stereotypes of Americans, and they worry about her being alone so far from home.
Haronoja, a freshman on the Gophers women’s cross country team, had lived in Finland her whole life before deciding to attend college in Minnesota.
“I was homesick at the beginning,” Haronoja admitted. “It’s gotten better, though. It’s nice to see something different.”
Minnesota women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson first discovered Haronoja a year and a half ago while on a recruiting visit to Finland. He sent her a letter in early 1995, and corresponded back and forth with her over the past year.
This summer, Wilson again visited Finland and watched Haronoja run in her country’s national meet. He also met with her parents in their home.
Although Wilson couldn’t speak her parents’ native language, and they didn’t know any English, Minna translated between the two sides. By the time the trip was over, Minna had signed a letter of intent to run at Minnesota.
“She wasn’t in the best shape when I saw her run because she had to spend a lot of time her senior year in high school getting ready for her equivalency test,” Wilson said. “There was just something about her. She’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached.”
Haronoja didn’t run much while in high school. She lived several miles away from town and only saw her coach about once a week. By the time she would get home after school it would already be dark. Finland is located so far north that its limited hours of daylight make it hard to get in much training time.
Since coming to Minnesota, she has improved greatly through more coaching and running practice.
Haronoja has bettered her times in two of her last three competitions. Her best meet of the season came two and a half weeks ago at the Auburn Invitational, where she led the Gophers with a time of 18 minutes, 11 seconds in the 5,000-meter race.
Her transition off the course was not quite as easy, though.
“I adjusted little by little,” Haronoja said. “The language was hard at first. People talk so fast and use slang words.”
But studying English for 10 years while growing up helped her gradually become accustomed to the life and language of Americans.
It now appears that she is a natural fit in Minnesota.
“I always wanted to come to America,” Haronoja said. “I like traveling and meeting new people.”
Since coming here, Haronoja found a few similarities between Minnesota and her homeland. While Minnesota lauds itself as “the land of 10,000 lakes,” Finland, a country roughly twice as big, has over five times as many lakes. The weather and climate in Minnesota are also similar to that of Finland. Winter is generally longer in Finland, but not quite as cold.
Coming to Minnesota has also given her a unique opportunity that she would not have had if she stayed in Finland for college. Universities in Europe don’t recruit athletes, or give out athletic scholarships like schools in the United States.
“I could not write a better scenario about an international runner coming into our program,” Wilson said. “If I was in a foxhole in a war, I’d want Minna Haronoja to be with me. She’d get the job done. If it killed her, she’d give you 100 percent.”
Even though the Finnish speedster has found a new home in America, she is not sure how long she wants to stay in her new surroundings.
She came here to run and go to school for a year, but is still uncertain if her future running career will continue here. Haronoja is planning to schedule college year by year. By this spring, she hopes to have made up her mind if she will stay at Minnesota or transfer back home to a Finnish university to study languages.
As her future in Minnesota remains up in the air, more than one person’s life is in turmoil.
Somewhere on a farm a long distance away there is a family still sitting and waiting to see when their daughter is coming home.