The muscles along his rigorously trained upper body ripple as he propels his racing wheelchair ever faster. The speed is simply stunning as he shoots past his rivals.
It’s Leo Pekka Tahti, the undefeated, four-time consecutive Paralympic gold medalist from Finland.
How does he do it?
“There’s no secret or magic involved,” Tahti says with a laugh. “I just train very hard. My confidence comes from knowing that the training I do every day is what lets me win races. Training never lets you down. Of course, there are times when I feel under the weather and training doesn’t go well. On days like that, I look back through my training notebook. Then I realize, for example, that even though my performance that day felt bad, it wasn’t bad at all compared to three years ago.”
A born athlete
Tahti was born with a spinal disorder, but his parents raised him no differently than they did their daughter, who is two years older than him. Tahti simply loved sports. As a child, if anyone was playing soccer or ice hockey in the neighborhood, he would always go and play with them. Sports was a constant presence in his life, whether he was playing it himself or watching it on TV.
Tahti began playing wheelchair basketball when he was eight years old and got serious when he was 11. Once a week, he participated in the training of a powerful European team. He was the youngest member of the team and still small, so he had difficulty shooting the ball into the high hoop. The experience, however, had a significant influence on him, not only in terms of developing his physique but also in terms of personal growth as a human.
His fateful encounter with athletics was when he was 15 years old. It all began with a half marathon that he participated in that year. Tahti says he still clearly remembers his time for that race. It was the turning point of his life.
Despite having participated in a regular wheelchair, Tahti’s time was so good that other wheelchair runners all told him he had potential. One of them even offered Tahti an old racing wheelchair. So a week after the marathon, Tahti got on a racing wheelchair for the first time in his life.
“It was a brand-new experience. I was starting from scratch, but I was determined, so I was able to continue without giving up.”
Back then, the Finnish national team for parasports had athletes competing in events like javelin, but none in short distance racing. When Tahti began training, he was unable to come across any information about wheelchair athletics in Finland, and he was completely on his own for training as well.
“But it was fun. I wanted to train 24 hours a day. The more I ran, the more I wanted to compete and win. I’d set a goal, and when I achieved it, I’d set a new goal. That’s how I kept climbing.”
Tahti simply loves competing against others. “Some athletes don’t have a competitive spirit. I find it baffling,” he says with a calm look. As a born athlete, winning is what drives Tahti to the next race.
Tahti set the world record with the racing wheelchair his father built for him
In 2001, Tahti entered his first international tournament. Then in 2002, the Finnish Paralympic Committee introduced him to his current coach, Juha Flinck.
From then on, Tahti narrowed his focus to short-distance events and gained experience on the world stage. From 2003, he started putting more effort into physical training, which shortened his time with every race until he won a ticket to Athens 2004. There, despite it being his first Paralympic Games, he won both the 100m and 200m races. It was the moment he first grasped the Paralympic gold medal.
“I went around the track carrying the Finnish flag and it felt amazing. I also saw my parents in the stands, crying with joy. It made me so happy.”
In fact, without Tahti’s father and his efforts behind the scenes, the champion may never have been born.
In addition to supporting Tahti’s training, his father also went out of his way to seek financial contributors. A glassmaker by profession, he worked his dexterous fingers to gather and weld materials on his own, customizing racing wheelchairs so that they fit Tahti’s body perfectly.
At London 2012, Tahti’s third Paralympic Games, he set a new world record in the 100m preliminary round: 13.63 seconds. The racing wheelchair that he was using for that race wasn’t equipped with the latest technologies or any special materials. It was built by his father. That world record still stands to this day.
The “star” who lit up parasports
The name Tahti means “star” in Finnish. True to his name, Tahti is, without a doubt, a star.
TV programs began to air para-athletics tournaments whenever Tahti competed, and he pushed parasports to the top of the headlines. Every year, Finland selects an athlete as the Sports Personality of the Year, and Tahti became the first para-athlete to be given this honor as the top Finnish athlete in 2016. It was undoubtedly the moment when Tahti changed the history of sports in Finland.
“Back when I started competing, nobody thought parasports could be a profession. But now, we can be heroes.”
Tahti has sponsorship contracts with five companies, including Japan’s Toyota Motor Corporation. He also receives around 2.2 million yen every month from Finland to cover competition expenses, allowing him to create an environment in which he can focus on his training.
While Finland generously supports its leading athletes, fewer efforts are being made to discover new talent. Tahti himself is concerned that no one is in a position to succeed him. “Finland was once famous in ski jumping, but when the champion retired, the sport went into decline.”
This is something that worries him, but he has ideas. One of them is to organize a summer camp that would allow people to experience various parasports.
“It would be great to travel around the country by car and discover young para-athletes with talent. I want to help young people who are interested in parasports.”
We held an online interview with Tahti in June 2021
Furthermore, he obtained a coaching degree in 2016 and has already started working as a wheelchair athletics coach. In 2020, he also started a marketing company with his sister to prepare for a career after his retirement as a competitive athlete.
Tahti’s goal for Tokyo 2020 is, of course, the gold medal. “Chinese and Thai athletes are getting stronger, so I can’t let my guard down. But when my rivals are in good conditions, the race becomes more heated, which makes it all the more fun,” he says excitedly.
With an insatiable desire to keep reaching higher, Tahti continues to race, fueled by a fierce competitive spirit, like a lion. The star, who was born with all the elements of a champion, will no doubt achieve something incredible at Tokyo 2020, where he may reach his fifth consecutive Paralympic gold medal. (July 2021)
interview by Reiko Shikama
key visual by Getty Images Sport, X-1
Paralympic Games Results
Athens Paralympic Games
100m (T54) Gold medal
200m (T54) Gold medal
Beijing Paralympic Games
100m (T54) Gold medal
200m (T54) Bronze medal
London Paralympic Games
100m (T54) Gold medal
Rio Paralympic Games
100m (T54) Gold medal
Last update 2021.07.11