Faith in winter sports has always been strong in Estonia. What could be better than switching on the television on a dark winter’s day to cheer on your fellow Estonians? In the right kind of weather, you might even put on the skis yourself and do a couple of circuits in the fresh air. No wonder, then, that at the height of their career you could hardly find more popular athletes in Estonia than the Nordic skiers Kristina Šmigun-Vähi, Andrus Veerpalu and Jaak Mae.
Today the gap left by their retirement has been filled – Kelly Sildaru, the freestyle skier who only turned 14 last year, triumphed in ski slopestyle at the X Games in Aspen. As a result Estonia has been hit by total Kelly-mania.
The new X Games champion is currently by far the most popular athlete in Estonia. This is especially evident on social media – Kelly Sildaru’s Facebook profile boasts about 50 000 followers. The second position in this ranking is held by the long-time leading tennis player in Estonia, Kaia Kanepi, who has half of the followers of Sildaru.
By now every, Estonian even remotely interested in sports must know the story about how the X Games champion got her first skis.
‘It all started with the spring sales at the Giacomelli sports store when Kelly was two years old,’ recalls Tõnis Sildaru, the trainer and father of the young athlete. The little girl went to test out her new equipment in the forests near Tallinn.
‘I started skiing when I was two. I got into freestyle-skiing at the age of five or six,’ recalls Kelly. ‘We started to attend training camps when Kelly was nine,’ adds her father.
With hindsight, Tõnis admits that discovering freestyle was a total coincidence. ‘I bought my own freestyle skis after Kelly was born. It can be said that we started out together. I did not have any prior relevant experience,’ he admits. ‘Actually there is no great sporting background in the family. None of us has done professional sports before.’
Good results demand great dedication
Kelly’s name as a future star was mentioned in Estonia and abroad already some years ago. The big breakthrough came this winter. Before winning the gold medal at the X Games in Aspen, Kelly triumphed in the second reputable extreme Dew Tour sports competition, also in ski slopestyle. At the end of February, she narrowly missed her second X Games medal when she came fourth in Oslo in her second field – Big Air jumps.
Extreme sports have long been the domain of youth. But Kelly’s achievements are still amazing considering her very young age. Hence it is easy to draw the conclusion that she must be extremely talented. Of course, in order to be a top professional athlete one needs certain prerequisites, but nothing comes without hard work. Observing her training days in Aspen, I can vouch that she trains a lot and she trains hard. The young Estonian was always the last one to leave the slopes and in the end she had to pack up her stuff when the slopes were closing for the day. ‘Perhaps I can still ski down once more,’ is her regular wish.
There is one important ingredient to her success – you have to really enjoy it, and this in clear in Kelly’s case. ‘It is cool to be up on the slopes with friends and to do the tricks,’ she admits.
There are also sweeter emotions involved in any work people put all their heart into. Whereas after winning the X Games Kelly had to start giving interviews immediately, Tõnis, who had taken care of her career throughout the years, could allow himself a few tears. ‘Yes, that’s what happened. It took me some minutes to cool down,’ he admitted to the Estonian journalists on location.
Regardless of everything, the Sildarus still consider themselves amateurs in comparison with other competitors, and they have nothing to match the opportunities which the teams of bigger countries enjoy. In order to compete at this level, they have to spend about six months a year away from home in training camps and competitions. As it was obvious some time ago that Kelly would have a breakthrough sooner or later, her father quit his job. ‘I no longer have a regular day job, unfortunately. Sometimes it would be nice to have that part of life too. Today I am part trainer, teacher, cook, father and cameraman,’ admits the 34-year old .
One might be forgiven for thinking that such major victories have opened the money-gates for the Sildarus, but this is also not true. To highlight this, Michael Spencer, an acclaimed sports manager who deals with Kelly’s foreign advertising deals, admitted in Aspen that at last they have managed to create a situation where costs are being covered and they can properly make ends meet.
At present it is mother Lilian who is supporting the family by continuing her day job. Hence she has to stay mostly in Estonia, whilst the members of her family travel the world. Lilian, who works in sales at a roof company, was left watching the triumph at the X Games in Aspen on television at home, though during the X Games in Oslo she had been able to support her daughter in person.
The Sildaru clan is growing
Kelly is not the only one in the family dreaming of big victories. Side-by-side with his big sister, 9-year old Henry Sildaru is also on his way to the top. Just as with his sister and father, Henry spends about half a year abroad participating in all the competition- and training trips. ‘Whilst people describe Kelly as passionate about skiing and someone who enjoys the whole process, this flame burns even brighter in Henry,’ admits Tõnis. ‘It is too early to speak of him as a top athlete. There is enormous competition among men.’ Whereas Kelly reached her first big victories at the age of 13, men do not usually get to the same level younger than 15 or 16 years of age.
However Henry demonstrates with every fibre in his body that his sister’s amazing results are also motivating him. He is already said to be more skilful on the ski slopestyle rails. Whilst watching the Big Air training of women at the Oslo X Games, he announced to the Estonian journalists that on such jumps he is already faster than Kelly.
In addition to offering some family competition, Henry is the one who makes sure that his older sister does not get bored on competition tours. The X Games champion is a good student who took out her textbooks on the morning after her big triumph in Aspen. As an older sister she makes it her business to help her brother. ‘Usually I study independently. I read and try to understand. If there is something I don’t get, I ask dad. I help my brother all the time. It is interesting for me, as these are things which I have also learned some time ago,’ Kelly admits. The siblings look for some snow time together even in the summer, as in order to keep the right feeling, you need to be on the skis every couple of weeks. ‘In recent years we have gone to Levi in Finland to ski in the off-season, and in summer we have been high on the glacier in France. At the end of the summer, it has been New Zealand for a month or two. I cannot see any reason why it should be different this year,’ says Tõnis. The whole family admits that the priority is to have a good time together and freestyle skiing offers a great opportunity for that.
As the big championships are over for Kelly this season, the family are making future plans. In addition to ski slopestyle, there are plans to achieve great results in the halfpipe with the help of the acclaimed French trainer Greg Guenet. Both of those fields are part of the Olympic Games program and Kelly wishes to participate in both fields at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang (Big Air which was part of the Oslo X Games is not part of the Olympics programme). According to the FIS age regulations, Kelly is ineligible to participate in the World Cup series next season, hence her World Cup debut will probably take place in August 2017 in New Zealand.
Source: Life in Estonia