In our little Finnish town, the ski race was the biggest event of the year.

It’s part of Russia now, the village in Karelia where I spent my childhood. The Russians annexed it, along with the rest of the Karelian region, after the two countries fought a war in 1939–40. But when I was young, the land of lakes, marshes, streams, cold weather, and hills was part of Finland. And that meant it was a land of skiing and of ski races.

Each February, when the worst of the winter chill was over, the townsfolk would come out of hibernation and gather at a large sand pit on the outskirts of the village. The sand pit was the site for the finish line of the cross-country ski competition, and for good reasons. For one thing, the hole torn from the side of the hill by summertime construction workers was large enough not only for the finish line, but for a food stand as well. One race day, the air was full of the aroma of gooey, steaming meat pies and sausages. For another thing, the snow-covered sides of the sand pit formed a natural amphitheater. Standing around its sides and rim, spectators could clearly see the final stretch of the course, and the entire town knew who the winner was the moment he crossed the line.

There were many preparations for the contest. Race officials tied blue paper armbands on some of the older children, authorizing them to monitor the crowds of people and keep competition lanes uncluttered. Trails were marked for the different events—short courses for younger children, longer courses for older children; separate trails for male and female teenagers and for men and women; and even a grandpa trail for the older folks, who always performed well in their own special race. Each group followed its own path, clearly marked by colored paper streamers. But the biggest event of all was the men’s 30-kilometer race. The winner was the hero of the village for a year, the man who had proved what he was made of. Many a quiet farmer, shoemaker, or storekeeper imagined himself gliding past his neighbors and on to victory.

As children, though we had a hero of our own. We called him Tappi-Eiska. He was the smallest and shortest possible full-grown man without being a midget. He was also the nicest, fun person we knew outside our family circles. Maybe his shortness helped us relate to him, because we could look at him eye-to-eye. Maybe we understood the struggles he’d been through because of his size. “Eiska” is probably a shortened form of Einari, which could have been his true first name. But “Tappie,” in Finnish, means “stump” or “shortie,” and it might well be that originally the nickname was intended as an insult. It didn’t matter to us children. He was the one we felt should be the best skier of the year.

The problem was, Tappi-Eiska wasn’t a very good skier. The first year he raced in the men’s division was a complete failure. The men had to go around a ten-kilometer course three times, and when the winner came in, Tappi-Eiska was just finishing his first time around the course. By the time Tappi did finish, the other skiers were all in the bath house or on the way home. Only a few disappointed children waited for their tired friend at the finish line.

The rest of that winter and all of the next one, Tappi-Eiska spent every spare minute skiing on that trail. In the summer he swam and rowed a big army boat around in the Vuoksi River. He didn’t grow taller, but he did grow muscular. We children were excited, certain that all those muscles and all that practice would make him a winner at last. We thought a man should win just because he was nice. It always happened that way in the movies.

But Tappi-Eiska didn’t win that year, either. This time, he crossed the line with the last group of skiers. At least he wasn’t hours behind, and some other people besides us saw him complete the race. We figured his legs were just too short to compete with the big men. Maybe he’d even stop trying now.

But during the next year, Tappi-Eiska showed us what the Finish word sisu means. It means determination or courage. And that’s what this man had. He went on training and training and training. By the time of the next ski contest, we knew Tappi would win. Of course, we had felt that way every year, but this time it seemed possible all over again.

The striding skiers kicked up snow as they raced into the forest. Through one lap, through two, and back into the forest again. When we knew they would be coming into sight, some of us, on skis ourselves, moved out from the sand hole to meet the winner, sure that it would be our hero, Tappi-Eiska.

We waited in the cold. The trees were white with frost. Smoke from the few visible chimneys stretched straight up in gray ribbons. Our cheeks were red. But then, suddenly, we were warm all over! Emerging from the edge of the forest was the shortest man in town, now the biggest man in town—Tappi-Eiska! He was ahead of everyone! Even the adults rose to their feet to cheer him on.

He came to the hill. We could see his short legs pumping so fast we could hardly focus on them. Then behind him came another man, a huge, lumbering giant! I’m sure many of us wished inside that somehow this long-legged pest would trip or break a ski, anything to keep him from passing. But as the two neared the top of the sand hole, the larger skier slipped past and crossed the line first.

How often in the years since then have I felt sorry for the man who came in first. Few of us cheered the winner. But when Tappi-Eiska crossed that line, there was much noise and confusion. We followed him on our skis down into the pit, and no older children with blue armbands could have stopped us. We gathered around Tappi-Eiska, then threw him into the air, skis and all. Many townspeople, who knew of Tappi’s struggles, joined us. Some were weeping without shame. We completely forgot that he had come in second, not first. This stubbornly determined little man had shown us the value of not giving up and had become the hero of my childhood.

That was 1938. World War II came the next year and took many things away. There were no ski contests. I never got my chance to be one of the older children wearing a blue armband and monitoring the crowd. And Tappi-Eiska never got another chance to prove he could cross the finish line first. But for me, and for the others, he would never have to. He had already proved he was a true winner in every sense of the word.