Olli-Pekka Karppinen (b), Joel Naukkarinen (s), Men's Double Sculls, Finland, 2021 European Rowing Championships, Varese, Italy / Benedict Tufnell

Most people wouldn’t associate Finland with flat water rowing. Frozen over for most of the year, those who do row find other ways to engage in the sport during the winter months. Joel Naukkarinen, who has been rowing since he was 13 years old, and on the Finnish national team since 2014, has also found success in Indoor rowing. On the podium at the 2020 and 2021 World Rowing Indoor Championships, he is chasing down another at this year’s edition. Not to mention he’s finishing his medical school placements, and pursuing research in neurophysiology on how the brain works in producing elite performance. He is our February 2022 Rower of the Month.

How was your 2021 rowing season?

When I was looking back at 2021 last December, I couldn’t believe that we were in the middle of the pandemic. I had a year full of adventures, experiences and racing. A total of six races in Indoor European and World Championships, several training camps for the Olympic qualification in the Men’s Double Sculls, the European Championships, a World Cup in the Single Sculls in Sabaudia, the World Rowing Coastal Championships, and a total of 15 national championships’ races over in flat water, indoor, and coastal. I must say that it was a busy season, lasting 10 months. I also managed to finish the famous 60km Sulkava rowing race as the first rower ever in the Olympic 1x, which became a real – sometimes even dangerous – adventure.

How did you first get into rowing?

My interest in sports started when I was 13 years old. At that time I got really into lifting weights, and we built our own gym in our farm shed, welding the equipment ourselves with my brothers. I wanted to become a personal trainer but I didn’t manage to get into the school I wanted. So I ended up in upper secondary school and the school’s rowing team. I noticed that my abilities fitted actually quite well in rowing. On the rowing team, I also met a girl with whom I have now been living with for 12 years. It was also the beginning of my academic career.

What does rowing in Finland look like? How many months of the year can you row on the water?

Finland is said to be ‘’the land of thousands of lakes’’. From that perspective it’s a rower’s paradise. The only problem is that those few millimeters of carbon fibres in the shell are too weak against 50cm of ice cover. Here in Kuopio,  rowing on water is limited to 6 months during the year. In southern Finland it’s better, and of course we need training camps. But I love rowing in Finland – those warm summer mornings and evenings, quiet lakes and midnight sun – that atmosphere is almost magical.

You’ve competed at many different types of rowing events – the World Championships, Indoor Championships (both virtually and in-person), and most recently, the Coastal Championships. Which one of these disciplines do you prefer? And why?

I can’t choose one over the other! I enjoy all of them. They are so different, and that’s the beauty of rowing for me. In flat water rowing I really respect the aim for perfection and fine-tuning of technique and equipment – strong athletes doing such sensitive work with such precision and repeating that stroke cycle even millions of times to make it better. In indoor rowing, that raw physical performance puts human capabilities under the most demanding conditions and distances, from sprinting to ultra-endurance. It allows the athlete to find limits of physiology for each system. Coastal rowing requires exceptional ability to react to the environment, changing conditions and the other crews. It involves a variety of different skills and cognitive performances under physical strain which makes it difficult.

Ville Pekka Maekelae (b), Joel Naukkarinen, Jukka-Pekka Kauppi, Juho-Pekka Petaejaeniemi (s), Saija Pihkanen (c), Men’s Coxed Quad, Finland, 2021 World Rowing Coastal Championships, Oeiras, Portugal / World Rowing/Benedict Tufnell

You just set a new Finnish Record in the Men’s 500m. Had you set that as a goal going into the 500m piece? And what sort of confidence does that inspire in you for the upcoming 2022 WRICH?

Yes, setting a new Finnish Record was my goal. I got motivated by our strong team, as many of them were setting new personal best results or their category Finnish records. As a leader of the team, it put me under some positive pressure, after several years of plateau. It’s an honour to work with these athletes and sharing my experience with them provides concentrated excitement of the group as a trade-off. Every aspect of the situation is quite inspiring at the moment!

Joel Naukkarinen sets a new Finnish Record in the Men’s 500m. Photo by Antti Heinänen

When you aren’t rowing, what does your life look like? Last time we spoke to you, at the beginning of 2021, you were just finishing up your med school exams. Where are you in your medical career now?

It has been a busy year, not just in rowing, but also in my academic and clinical career. I had my last exams in February 2021, and since then I have been working as a medical intern trying different specialties. I did one month in gastro surgery, two months in clinical neurophysiology and one month in internal medicine. Last month, I was in anesthesiology and in the intensive care unit. This February, I’m in psychiatry, which is the last one before graduating. While in the neurophysiology specialty, I got so interested in neurosciences and trying to understand how the brain works in producing elite performance, that I started a research project. So now, besides everything, I’m working with a PhD plan – and looking for funding. I’m hoping that I could be a scientist soon.

What are your upcoming goals in rowing?

The Olympics are my dream. I’m working for that. It’s something that I really want to achieve and I already have experienced almost all the other big races among these three rowing disciplines – and enjoyed every part of the journey. I hope that my situation as a “professional rower” here in Finland would allow me to focus more on rowing, but for that I would need support. Now I need to work more for the funding of every race of the year, every training camp and so on – more than this demanding sport requires itself.

If you could give one piece of advice to a rower starting out what would it be?

Don’t hesitate to dream big. And be brave to try it. On that journey, there is nothing to lose, only a lot to win.

What is the most memorable piece of advice that has been said to you?

Reach for the stars, land on the moon.

Do you have a mentor or athlete that you admire?

Mentors, yes, I have many. One athlete, and nowadays a mentor of Finnish team, who is often with us at international regattas. He is so well-known among the rowing community – Pertti Karppinen, three-time Olympic champion in single scull from 1976 to 1984. I really admire his confident and calm attitude. It’s a very special strength that is still reflecting from him.


To follow Joel’s journey, visit his Instagram page!