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Five Aalto students belong to the Finnish Championship winning synchronised skating team Team Unique

The skaters studying at different Aalto schools are Aalto’s Urhea athletes
Muodostelmaluistelujoukkue Team Unique'n aaltolaiset luistelijat
Finnish Championship medallists. Some can notice that the skaters use their fingers to form the letters A-A-L-T, and a fresh gold medal acts as the letter O! Anna Loimaranta (left), Malva Zechner, Aino Äijö, Captain Tuulia Niittuinperä and Jenni Puhakka.

As Finland’s new champion, Team Unique is our country’s number one representative team at the World Synchronized Skating Championships in Lake Placid, USA held between 31 March and 1 April 2023.

The team consists of 19 young elite athletes, of whom five are currently studying at Aalto. The Aalto skaters are Anna Loimaranta (Information Networks), Team Captain Tuulia Niittuinperä (Bioinformation Technology), Jenni Puhakka (Computer Science), Malva Zechner (Electrical Engineering) and Aino Äijö (Business Studies).

Aalto University is working to ensure that the dual careers of athletes are genuinely possible. This work aims to ensure that the combining of goal-oriented sports with studies can be achieved in an effective and balanced way. Aalto University and the Helsinki Metropolitan Area sports academy Urhea have had a partnership agreement since 2015.

Team Unique -joukkueen kapteeni Tuulia Niittuinperä
Team Captain Tuulia Niittuinperä

Elli Hämäläinen, planning officer of Learning Services at the School of Business, has coordinated Aalto’s Urhea activities for a few years.

‘The number of competitive athletes in our university keeps increasing, and support services and activities targeted at them are constantly being developed. Currently, Aalto’s Urhea team is working on a new aalto.fi website that contains information on how competitive athletes are supported and organising a joint meeting of competitive athletes in the spring. The Urhea courses offered to competitive athletes were updated last autumn, and their teacher-in-charge is Sami Itani, professor of practice at the School of Business. It’s been great to have Sami in the Urhea team and participate in the activities,’ Elli Hämäläinen says.

Urhea, a sports academy that was founded in 2003 and has its 20th anniversary this year, is an official elite sports academy approved by the Finnish Olympic Committee. The academy works in close cooperation with the elite sports unit of the Olympic Committee, and the Urhea Foundation provides background support.

Team Unique, keskellä luistelija Malva Zechner
Malva Zechner in front

Combining elite sports and university studies is possible at Aalto

Team Unique is Helsingfors Skridskoklubb’s (HSK) Finnish Championship senior team, that is, it competes at the sport’s highest league level. The team is one of the most successful synchronised skating teams in the world. The skaters practise about 25 hours a week, but when you include the time it takes to travel to practice and the other activities being an athlete entails, the sport easily takes over 30 hours of their week. In addition to skating, the practice programme includes dancing, gym exercises, running and psychological coaching.

Synchronised skating is a team sport in which 16 skaters do everything at the exact same time on the ice. That is to say, creating individual practice schedules for individual skaters, for instance, is not possible because everyone must always be at practice. The competitive season for synchronised skating and the university’s academic year happen concurrently, so the off-season is during the summer holiday. At the elite level, the sport requires a very strong commitment both physically and mentally. 

‘With the requirements of the sport in mind, we strive to make our own schedules as flexible as possible. Combining studies and sports has mainly gone smoothly for the five of us – but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Tiina Kerola and Piia Ylitalo from Aalto’s Learning Services have been a big help in planning studies,’ the skaters say. 

Team Uniquen Aino Äijö nostoliikkeessä
Aino Äijö up in the air, Anna Loimaranta second from left

‘Many professors aren’t familiar with this Urhea concept yet, so it often takes time to explain it although professors usually are understanding,’ says Malva. For Anna, the combination of studies and sports has mainly gone well. ‘There’s been flexibility in exam times and the ways to complete courses. I’ve decided to leave out some courses to maintain balance.’

Jenni’s studies have gone really well. ‘I’ve had professors who have understood my situation and wanted to help. The possibility for distance learning has also been a big help. For me, studying in addition to elite sports is very important, and I’d like to succeed in it too. Sometimes certain prejudices concerning athletes’ motivation to study feel frustrating. At least my motivation to study is very high, and, with the attitude of an elite athlete, I always strive to do my best.’

Of the five skaters, Aino is the most recent member of the Aalto community. She started at the School of Business last autumn. ‘My studies have started well. The pace of studying has felt suitable for me, and I have completed courses with good grades,’ Aino says. Tuulia tells that she has learned countless important life skills doing sports and that these skills are very helpful when combining sports and studies. ‘For example, self-direction helps you manage your daily life and enables you to have enough energy for both studying and practising. Many things become possible in life when you make an effort to give a little thought on how to do them.’

Congratulations Team Unique, we are wishing for your success in future competitions! We wish the same for all other Finnish teams and individual athletes, and we are particularly lucky when the athletes also represent Aalto University to some degree!

Muodostelmaluistelujoukkue Team Unique, joukkueessa myös Aallon opiskelijoita
Every season the team practices and competes with a short program and a free program. Jenni Puhakka in front.

Interviews and text: Terhi Ollikainen
Photos: Team Unique

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