"I don't believe in miracles, but the human body is capable of recovering in an incredible way, and it all depends on the mind."
Minna Riihimaki was born and grew up in Finland, but at the age of twenty she loaded her suitcase, skis and boots in her car and set off for the Alps. Her excuse was her studies at Grenoble University, but she already knew the Alps would become her home. Today she lives in Chamonix, where she cares for her two children, works as a dentist and indulges her enormous passion for the mountains and outdoor sports.
Every so often life exacts a price, and it's not always roses: we decided to ask Minna about her dreams past, present and future; dreams of powdery snow and MTB wheels zipping along trails. Dreams of flying through the air and of boundless horizons, but also of hard work, sweat and immense resilience both mental and physical. This is Minna yesterday and today, before and after the horrific skiing accident in 2016 that inevitably changed her life and her way of seeing and navigating the world she loves.
Minna, you're a professional skier and mountain biker. What do the two have in common?
Skiing and cycling are really compatible; I'd go so far as to say they're interchangeable for me. Both allow you to fully enjoy the pleasure of movement and take advantage of the force of gravity, all year round. On my bike or my skis I see opportunities to move great distances among the valleys and mountains, every time discovering what's on the other side. I like going uphill, because I know I'm earning a wonderful descent.
But I really love the feeling of only going downhill. Of doing the same route several times to perfect the line, the speed and the jumps. In that sense, ski lifts and bike parks are brilliant!
Tell us about a couple of your successes on skis or a bike, something you're really proud of.
There was one day of skiing that was truly awesome. The conditions were perfect and there was a great energy between me and my companions. As we went up in the cable car we all agreed that it was the ideal day to ski the Frendo Spur on the north face of the Aiguille du Midi. After we'd skied down, in perfect conditions of powder snow, I discovered I was the first woman to ski that legendary route. I couldn't have been prouder of myself!
But the greatest success of my life is probably managing to ski steep slopes again this spring, after my accident 4 years ago. I'd been told I'd never walk again without a stick, so being able to take curves and jumps with a big smile on my face was an amazing feeling! On the bike, I proudly remember the period when I competed in the European Downhill Championships. Racing gave me a solid base which even today allows me to improve and push myself a little further.
Before the accident did you sometimes think "what if something bad happens?", or were you the kind of person who doesn't worry too much about the consequences?
For me, accepting the risks and the consequences depends on your knowledge and awareness of the environment you're in. In the mountains it's impossible to control everything, but it is possible - and necessary - to reduce the risk as much as possible. You need foresight and expertise; you need knowledge, but also intuition. Then, when you're in the middle of the action, there's no time for negative thinking, it's best to concentrate on your movements and your success, rather than the negative consequences that might happen if something goes wrong.
You had a lot of operations after your accident. Did you ever feel discouraged during your rehabilitation? How did you handle the situation?
Yes, I had 13 operations in the past four years, serious septicemia twice, and on three occasions the doctors put me to sleep and told me that I might wake up with a leg amputated. This kind of situation makes me see life from a different angle...
Rehab was a long battle to get back to how things were previously, and it'll never really end. Now I've decided not to have any more operations for a while. I've decided to live without ligaments in my knee, which means using only the strength of my muscles and the mental ability to control them to keep my knee stable. In recent years I've had to relearn everything from scratch. How to stand, walk, jump, run, squat, tiptoe... in other words, how to do everything that in normal circumstances would be automatic.
Obviously there have been times when I've felt despair, but not too many, actually!
Dealing with the difficulties doesn't leave much room for despondency. I decided to move forward; I got it into my head that I had to repeat very simple exercises and I started to improve little by little. My progress was partly thanks to the support of a really special medical team, and the presence of some wonderful friends. In my view the best way to get over negative feelings is to focus on your goals, what you want to achieve, and move towards them with a calm and clear mind.
Do you practise any kind of mental exercise to do that? Like yoga, mindfulness or meditation...
I used to do a lot of yoga and pilates, before my accident. But for me it was like a complementary sport; I didn't really get into the meditative side. For me the best thing about yoga is that it gives you a more accurate perception of your body and mind, as well as balance, flexibility and sense of movement. These are really useful when it comes to skiing, climbing or cycling, particularly in difficult situations. My understanding of my body and its limitations guides and develops my mental strength.
You're so strong, both physically and mentally! What advice would you give to someone undergoing a process (long or short) of rehabilitation?
First and foremost it's important to listen to your body and set targets. and then... "never give up!"
I don't believe in miracles, but the human body is capable of recovering in an incredible way, and it all depends on the mind. Determination and motivation are the keys to becoming resilient.
What with work, family, rehab and the mountains, I imagine you don't have time for much else! Is there anything in your life you'd like to do but don't have time for?
During my rehab I had some spare time, so I made the most of it and got a Masters in business administration from the Sorbonne. If I hadn't had the accident, I'd never have had the time or the courage to do that! Recently I also learned paragliding. It's something I'd never thought about before, but I really love it. It gives you the possibility of getting into the mountains and, above all, getting home again much faster and safely, in summer and winter!
Thanks for sharing your story with us! Before we sign off, tell us about your dreams for the future and the adventures in store for you!
I'd like to explore other mountain ranges, Greenland, for example, maybe combining ice climbing and skiing... Or Pakistan, combining rock climbing and paragliding. Mountaineering opens the doors to different cultures and allows us to share experiences that enrich our lives. My dream is to have a life full of as many experiences as possible!
At the moment I feel very pleased that I've managed to return to my outdoor passions. I have one plan in mind that I haven't found the time for yet. I'm waiting for a rainy day to start writing... let's see what comes out!