Elin Pikkuniemi was Sweden’s first ever so-called “queen of the ski slopes” thanks to her achievements in the period around 1920.
Elin Pikkuniemi was born in the village of Vojakkala in Nedertorneå in 1895. She was the youngest of four children, three of which were girls. Her father, Johan Pikkuniemi, owned his own farm and was a junior-school teacher. He saw to it that all his daughters were qualified as junior-school teachers through a bilingual teacher-training programme in Haparanda. Elin Pikkuniemi’s first post was in Risudden in her home municipality. Her two sisters also worked there.
Being able to ski was hardly a remarkable skill for those who lived in northern Norrland. However, Elin Pikkuniemi’s skiing ability was extraordinary. Her height and naturally slender figure worked in her favour. It is said that she followed no regular training regime but that she maintained her fitness through her habit of undertaking lengthy journeys on her skis. For example, it was not unusual for her to travel the nearly 4 Swedish mile distance from Risudden to Seskarö on skis in order to visit her sister Hanna, and then ski home after just a couple of hours’ break. Printed information on Elin Pikkuniemi also notes that she differed from her female contemporaries in her choice of competition apparel. It is claimed that they tended to wear long skirts whilst she would compete in a knee-length skirt and tights. However, inspection of contemporary photographs reveals this to be incorrect. The majority of women either wore knee-length skirts or long trousers.
The men’s Swedish skiing championship was introduced in 1910. The women’s event followed in 1917. Until 1956 the women’s Swedish championship event only involved a single distance, namely 10 kilometres. Elin Pikkuniemi did not participate in the first ladies’ competition which was held in Stockholm. She made her Swedish championship debut when the competition was held in Sundsvall in 1918 at which she was the outright victor. She continued competing in these events and retained her supremacy over the ensuing four years at Falun, Bollnäs, Boden, and Stockholm. Between 25 and 35 ladies competed at each event, but she remained the unchallenged winner and she always completed the distance in less than an hour. Her greatest winning margin was achieved in 1919 when she came in around five and a half minutes before her closest competitor. In 1922 she finished around four and a half minutes before the woman who came in second place. Her fastest finish was noted in 1920 when she performed a perfect run in 42 minutes and 13 seconds. It was not until 1943 that Margit Åsberg, of Brännan IF, completed the distance in a faster time. Vidar Martinell, a historian of skiing, has noted that when the Swedish championship was held in Boden in 1921 Elin Pikkuniemi not only competed but skied 10 Swedish miles to the start and then skied the same distance home again afterwards. However, this is likely an apocryphal tale. Although it is related by various writers, it is never accompanied by any source material. Another apocryphal tale is presumably the claim that Elin Pikkuniemi on several occasions competed as the third ‘man’ of the male relay team representing the Haparanda IFK.
Elin Pikkuniemi did compete as a member of the Haparanda IFK during her competitive years when she dominated the Swedish championships. In three of these years – 1919, 1920, and 1921 – she also won the Norrbotten district championship for the 10 kilometre distance. According to Vidar Martinell it was said that Elin Pikkuniemi completed a distance of 30 kilometres in a time of 2 hours and 18 minutes, which was 16 minutes faster than the gold-winning time achieved by a man. At the age of 39 she skied 20 kilometres in a time of 1 hour and 27 minutes, equalling times achieved by male elites. It was not unusual for her to beat some of her male clubmates from time to time.
When Elin Pikkuniemi left Norrbotten in 1925 in order to commence her studies in Stockholm she withdrew from competitive skiing. However, in 1926, now a member of the Järla IF she made a temporary return to compete in Nordiska Spelen (the Nordic Games) in Stockholm. A ladies one-mile (Swedish mile) event was included. (Several writers have erroneously noted that the distance was 50 kilometres, whilst others equally erroneously claim that this competition held the same status as a Swedish championship event.) The run was exceedingly challenging. At the halfway point Elin Pikkuniemi had an approximately 30-second lead, but Signe Pettersson, the 1924 Swedish championship winner representing the Ludvika IF who had been helped by some Norwegians and knew how her competitors were doing, put on an aggressive sprint and finally succeeded in beating Elin Pikkuniemi by 10 seconds, pushing her into second place. The På skidor annual blames Elin Pikkuniemi’s comparatively weak performance on her teacher-training programme in Stockholm which left her short of time to train. It was probably of some comfort to her that she won that year’s District championship event in Stockholm in the same distance category. She did not compete in that year’s Swedish championship held in Luleå.
Elin Pikkuniemi made another comeback in 1933. By this time she had moved back to Norrland and was living in and competing on behalf of the Hietaniemi SK. That year the Swedish championship was held in Boden. For some reason Elin Pikkuniemi was almost a minute late to the starting line, obviously worsening her chances of doing well. According to På skidor she still put in an impressive run and “was in top form when she finished”. This contemporary account seems to contradict Vidar Martinell’s claim that she raced despite being ill. She finished in eighth place.
It is said that Elin Pikkuniemi was always of a happy disposition and unfailingly good-humoured. She was of an uncomplicated nature and humble. Whenever she passed a fellow competitor she never used to order them to “Make way!”. When the time came she would come alongside the relevant competitor and pass them whilst expressing a few encouraging words. She was sometimes embarrassed that she skied faster than some men. Once when she caught up with a male competitor one of her clubmates shouted across to her: “Speed up, Elin, pass him!”. Her quick response was: “Naw, I don’t wanna, 'cause we know each other!”.
Elin Pikkuniemi was also interested in slalom skiing. She would often go to the tourist resort of Abisko, usually with a group of friends, and enjoy some downhill skiing.
Elin Pikkuniemi moved away from Norrbotten in 1950 and moved to Stockholm, settling in Tullinge. She continued to work as a teacher until she retired. During her time in Stockholm she bought a motorcycle and learnt to maintain it. She put her knowledge to great use when she and a friend visited the USA. They travelled around the country on motorbikes, visiting family and friends who had previously emigrated from Norrbotten. Later on in life Elin Pikkuniemi got a driver’s licence and purchased a car which she used to visit her childhood haunts in Tornedalen and any relatives and friends who still lived there.
Just before the 50th anniversary of Riksidrottsförbundet (RF; the national sporting federation) the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper held a vote for the top sporting personality. Around 5,000 readers participated and voted on a total of 150 individuals. Elin Pikkuniemi was the sole woman included.
Elin Pikkuniemi for some reason moved away from Tullinge in Stockholm and settled in Tränö, Hälsingland at some point in the 1970s. She saw out the rest of her days there. Elin Pikkuniemi died in May 1988. She was 92 years old and had outlived her siblings by a number of years. She never married. She had, however, spent more than 30 years sharing her life with a woman called Greta Palmquist.