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After winning two silver medals in 2017 and 2018, Jaakko Nieminen triumphed at the 10-kilometer race at this year’s Tet Riga Marathon, making friends and supporters from two countries proud at the same time – his home country Finland and his study destination Latvia. Medical studies are so challenging that high athletic achievements might seem unattainable. Well, Jaakko is proof that it is possible.

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This year Jaakko Nieminen came in first, crossing the finish line of the 10 km race with a result of 32 minutes and 28 seconds. Photo credit: Tet Riga Marathon

Long, consistent training hours and sweat is what brought Jaakko to the winner’s podium on 19 May. ‘It does not come easily, especially for a medical student,’ says Jaakko who began his fourth year at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) this spring. Unlike in the first few years which cover the principal theoretical medical subjects, the fourth and fifth study years are a period when the doctors-to-be travel between hospital campuses to learn clinical courses in real conditions. It is, of course, challenging but schedule-wise this new structure allows Jaakko to train more. At the same time, medical studies have their advantages for an athlete – they help understand the physiology that can turn one’s body into a perfect running machine. 

Juggling medicine and sport

RSU is not Jaakko’s first university, nor was studying to be a doctor his first choice of profession. Even though he dreamed of medicine, his first unsuccessful attempt to get into a medical school in Finland turned his mind to physics and chemistry which he studied at the University of Jyväskylä for a year only to realise that it was not his field after all. He then moved to the United States on an athletic scholarship to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in International Business at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Only after four years, having boosted both his English and confidence, did Jaakko decide to once again try his hand at medicine – this time at RSU. So far he has been juggling his duties well by decreasing his training when the study schedule got tougher.

At the moment Jaakko trains an impressive amount. To reach his weekly average mileage of 120 km he usually works out twice a day. During the preparation phase for important races he raises his weekly mileage up to 160 km. Once every two weeks Jaakko takes a day off if he feels a need for recovery. On training and strategy his permanent support is Coach Antero Liukkonen. Based in Jaakko’s hometown Jyväskylä the coach sends over training programmes and follows up on the runner’s results daily. The main driving force behind this is Jaakko himself, however: ‘I have been running for 20 years now, so it has become an inseparable part of my life.’

Payoff time

‘While I was at school I was into running just as much as I was into football and cross country skiing. I completed my first marathon in 2014 and became hooked on the 42 km distance from then on,’ he says. Already a year later he received his first national marathon champion title in Finland, and has since defended it twice – in 2017 and 2018.

For the general public in Latvia today running has a broader appeal than ever, whether it is a quick morning run in the local park as part of an urban lifestyle, or a series of trail runs in the scenic landscapes of the Latvian countryside. This passion for running was mirrored in the record-high number of participants (more than 38 thousand people!) at the Tet Riga Marathon this year. When talking about the race that brought him gold, however, Jaakko mentions the heat, rather than the crowd of runners, as his main challenge. ‘The crowd did not bother me, as I took a pretty good lead during the first few kilometres. Later on it was just a matter of holding on to that lead,’ reflects Jaakko. Several factors helped him to do so, including the numerous supporters along the track. ‘There are quite a lot of students from Finland at RSU, and I could definitely feel their support on the day of the race.’

tet_maratons_rsu_komanda_2019.jpgThis year RSU was represented at the marathon by 205 participants from almost 20 countries and was among the largest and most international teams.

Pushing further

When asked about future challenges, the runner reveals plans to take part in Finland’s National Championship in track and field. It is, however, still not completely decided because Jaakko will spend the summer months working at Finnish hospitals specialising in gastro-surgery in the city of Lahti, and Orthopaedics in his hometown. If his schedule allows he would love to take part in some Latvian and Lithuanian races this summer as well. As for the 2020 Riga Marathon Jaakko is considering challenging himself in the 21-kilometer race. ‘Considering this year’s final results I would have finished second pretty easily if I had participated this year.’

Jaakko_training.jpgThe three-time Finnish marathon champion training back home.

Speaking of the future, Jaakko sees himself continuing as a semi-professional athlete. ‘I am not 20 anymore, and I should be focusing on medicine and building a career in this field. I might, however, combine my two passions one day and specialise in sports medicine.’ His home town Jyväskylä is a perfect place in that regard as it hosts the only sports science department in the whole country, as well as the renowned Olympic Sport Research Centre.