Susann Sundkvist – Mentoring Finland’s next generation of women athletes

Susann Sundkvist – Mentoring Finland’s next generation of women athletes
European Athletics

Susann Sundkvist (left) with top Finnish race walker Anne Halkivaha after the women’s 20km race at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

Back in 2007, athletics was a part of Susann Sundkvist’s past, but it played no role in her present and she certainly didn’t envisage it as a part of her future.

The former Olympic high jump finalist from Finland had not competed since 1979 and she was happy devoting time to her family and her career as a hospital physiotherapist.

Then came a phone call that would bring the sport back into her life and eventually lead to a European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award in 2013.

It was from Anni Kirvesniemi-Bosco (herself a Women’s Leadership Award winner in 2011), who wanted help in creating a system of mentors for the current generation of Finnish women athletes.

“One of the aims was to lower the drop-out percentage of female athletes aged about 18 to 21 and to encourage them to go on to become really good athletes,” explains Susann, who jumped at the opportunity to get involved.

Working in the city of Turku, she started meeting with a group of young women athletes who were keen to progress towards international competitions and sharing her experiences in the sport.

“The first year was challenging,” she recalls. “It was about finding my way to do this thing ‘right’.

"Then, in the following two years, I think the number of participants in Turku grew to be the biggest of all the mentoring groups that had been set up around Finland.”

Susann’s involvement over that last six years has made a huge impact. She helped the project become a nation-wide success and developed strong bonds with the Turku participants.

“I was and I still am very proud of them. We talked about things like having the courage to make the right choices in life and in sports, the importance of a positive attitude, being honest with oneself and the coach, taking responsibility with what one is doing, body image and accepting oneself, relationships and co-operations, facing the media, getting sponsorship, injuries, come-backs. Everything!”

Susann’s nomination for the Women’s Leadership by the Finnish Athletics Federation is a reflection of both her approach to life and the impact she has had on the lives of others in the sport.

“Positive attitude, some curiosity and a sense of humour are part of my philosophy for life,” she says.

“Susann has a strong commitment to athletics, excellent social skills and a profound understanding of elite sports. She is a person team members can truly trust,” confirms Jarmo Makela, the General Secretary of the Finnish Athletics Federation.

Given her involvement in a scheme designed to keep young women within the sport, it’s not surprising that Susann has plenty to say about the role of women in athletics.

But, typically, she is confident that with initiatives like the Women’s Leadership Awards and her own mentoring programme, things can and will change for the better.

“I think that female athletes have to do more and achieve better results than their male colleagues before they reach the same status and receive the same admiration. Maybe it is the same off the track and within organisations? If so, let´s break the trend!

“We women are really drawing the lines around what we are allowed or are not allowed to do. The more we allow ourselves to participate in athletics, the more people will see women perspiring on the track and in the field, coaching, taking active roles within the federations. We can do it! If we don’t, athletics will stay very male dominated.”

With the likes of Susann Sundkvist working so hard to help other women excel, it won’t stay that way for long.

The European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards

The aim of the European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards is to recognise the behind the scenes work and accomplishments that have helped to make the winners role models for other women in athletics. Coaching young athletes, officiating, setting up and managing clubs . . . their achievements are as varied as the individuals themselves.

In 2013, 26 women, including Susann, were selected for the award by their national athletics federations.