I never expected that I would win five medals and four consecutive gold Paralympic medals. I’m so happy too that I can do it alongside Kenny and that he has a wonderful career too."
For the last 16 years Finland’s Leo-Pekka Tahti and Dutchman Kenny van Weeghel have been battling it out in the T54 sprints. With 20 world and 12 Paralympic medals between them, they have one of wheelchair racing’s most enduring rivalries.
The pair will line up again at the World Para Athletics Championships in London, Great Britain, which start on 14 July. We spoke to four-time 100m T54 Paralympic champion Tahti, nicknamed the ‘Flying Finn’, about his continuing competition with van Weeghel, the 36-year-old triple world champion over 200m.
IPC: You have shared the podium with Kenny for many years – what do you make of your time at the top together?
Tahti: I’m wondering why, especially as the T54 class is a very high level. If we compare the results in the longer distance there are many changes. But in the sprints, I don’t know, maybe me and Kenny have gone to such a high level. 14 seconds, it’s very difficult to beat. But me and Kenny we can break this limit many times – maybe that’s why.
Can you remember the first time you raced each other?
I think it was 2001 in Nottwil. I turned 18 when we were there. He was very strong - he had already competed in the Sydney Paralympics. Then we competed in 2003 at the European Championships - I was fourth and Kenny reached the medals. In 2004 I won my first Paralympic gold medal – and I beat Kenny, so it was a very special moment for me.
When you see Kenny’s name on the start list how do you feel?
It was funny because when he said to me that he might retire after Rio 2016, after that I heard nothing about him. Then I saw the start list in Switzerland this year and I thought ‘Yes. He’s here again.’ The first race was 200m and he was very strong again, so I was a little bit worried about the 100m. Fortunately I beat him, but it wasn’t too big a margin for me.
You tend to beat Kenny over 100m, while he often dominates the 200m. What would it mean to you to win 200m world gold?
200m is quite a mystery for me. I wonder why I can’t actually go faster than I am at the moment as I can push very hard in the first 100m. I’m Paralympic champion in the 200m from Athens 2004 but the fact is after this I didn’t really achieve much over the distance, so I put more focus on the 100m. When I think about the race in London it’s going to be very interesting - at the moment there are at least five or six athletes who can go below 25 seconds.
Do you talk much in the call room?
Sometimes, if it is the heats or the semi-final I might speak a bit more but before the final I’m just alone. I’m quite a silent guy when I prepare for a big final but of course in the call room there are always some who speak. Some talk a lot – I might want to ask them to shut up! But if I am beside Kenny we can talk. Just because we respect each other - it’s not psychological.
It’s not just the two of you – you suffered a rare defeat at Doha 2015 to China’s Yang Liu. Do you keep an eye out for other youngsters?
I keep an eye on the results list and the ranking list if there are potentially new guys. At the moment there is one Saudi Arabian guy, Jamaan Alzahrani in my class – he pushed very fast in Arbon (in May) so I think he can do great things in the future. Mohammad Vahdani is strong too, he is in good shape.
Liu was very strong in Doha but it was also a surprise that he didn’t improve much in Rio, I had expected him to make better results. It’s getting much more difficult to win the 100m if he is in London.
If you think back to 2001 – would you have believed then what both you and Kenny have achieved in your careers?
Two athletes and they both have amazing careers in wheelchair racing history - I didn’t expect us to have this kind of career. In 2001 I thought maybe I would stop in London (2012). When I was seventh in the European championships I didn’t think that I would win gold medals one day. That was my goal, but I never expected that I would win five medals and four consecutive gold Paralympic medals. It’s an amazing achievement and a long career. I’m so happy too that I can do it alongside Kenny and that he has a wonderful career too – it’s quite special.