Olympian’s life spans Finnish independence

101-year-old born a year before Finland broke from Russia

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HELSINKI — Torsten Liljeberg’s handshake is solid, and he’s fit as only a former Olympian can be. For those who don’t know him, he could pass for someone in his 80s enjoying his retirement at his seaside home in Helsinki.

Liljeberg is in fact 101 years old — a year older than his homeland Finland, a nation celebrating Wednesday the 100th anniversary of its independence from the Russian Empire.

Perhaps more than most others, the life of Liljeberg — a World War II veteran and an Olympic canoeist — tells the story of the tumultuous journey taken in the past century by this small Nordic country and its people, known for their passion for sport, love for nature and grit for survival against the odds.

As a soldier, Liljeberg was at the front lines more than once as Finland fought heavy battles against the Soviet Union. A talented canoeist and kayaker, he represented the national team on home waters at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics — a watershed moment and an important morale-booster in a postwar, sport-crazed Finland.

“I think Finland has done fine. Things are going forward,” Liljeberg says over a cup of coffee, pondering the past 100 years of this small nation of 5.5 million. “People have work and the economy is growing. That’s very important. And we have a strong army, too.”

Known to his friends by the nickname Nappus, Liljeberg was born in October 1916, when Finland was still an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. The area now known as Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom for nearly 700 years since the late 12th century. It fell into Russian hands in 1809 after Europe’s Napoleonic wars.