WINTER GAMES: Salmela Family Builds Mini-Olympic Venue

By Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune

The cross-country ski course is on the left side of the Salmela family’s driveway. To the right, there is a banked luge course that winds around the house from the backyard.

These are Olympic people. Chad Salmela, in his fourth Winter Olympics as a commentator for NBC, provided the “YES! YES! YES!” heard around the internet. His call was the soundtrack as Minnesotan Jessie Diggins pushed past Stina Nilsson of Sweden to win the women’s team sprint freestyle race — and the gold medal — in Pyeongchang.

Ira “Mimmu” Salmela, a native of Finland, worked at Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Turin, Italy and Vancouver — with roles ranging from reporter to athlete services. As a former staffer and coach with the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team, she also has a friend-list teeming with Olympic athletes.

While Chad Salmela was in Connecticut providing ski commentary, Mimmu Salmela was turning the backyard into an Olympic event smorgasbord fit for a neighborhood’s-worth of kids.

“They’re thrilled,” she said of the multi-event yard. “They come in with red cheeks and so many stories about who did what.”

Mimmu Salmela serves hot chocolate to Benjamin Pilate, 10, of Duluth after he was playing on a homemade Winter Olympics course. Clint Austin /

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The Salmelas made a small rink after watching the NHL All-Star Skills Competition. The patio-sized version was framed with wood planks, Mimmu Salmela said, and then they iced over a tarp. There is a small net, and they use Finnish indoor hockey sticks.

But when the Olympic Games got going, Taavi Salmela, 9, had an idea: He wanted to try curling.

“I just got into it,” he said, giving a shoutout to gold medalist John Shuster.

Taavi made the house with red and blue food coloring.

Mimmu Salmela wears a jacket from the 2006 Winter Olympics as her kids and their friends play in their Duluth yard. The Salmelas had many Olympic-themed jerseys and bibs for the kids to wear. Clint Austin /

They use hockey pucks instead of rocks. A couple of Swiffers were wrapped with towels to create makeshift brushes.

“I’m all out of cleaning supplies,” Mimmu Salmela said.

Kid-size chairs were embedded into the snowbank overlooking the rink. This is where the figure skating judges sit. It’s up to the spectators to hum the music.

They added the luge last weekend. Mimmu Salmela figured it out: With a steep enough start, a sled or saucer could get enough speed to make it from the backyard, through an S curve and into the bottom of the front yard. She filled an igloo that was already built and popped two American flags into the top of the mound. She shoveled a banked path. A few neighbors pitched it. This isn’t the only luge course in the neighborhood.

Iita Salmela, 7, and Caroline Wellnitz, 11, both of Duluth, ride sleds on a homemade luge track that is part of a Winter Olympics course in the yard of Chad and Mimmu Salmela in Duluth. Clint Austin /

The cross-country skiing is on the side yard and for biathlon, they just added a Nerf gun and a target.

The kids wear Chad Salmela’s old racing bibs from when he was competed with the U.S. biathlon team, in addition to cast-offs from an friend base of international athletes. Family friend Julianne Vasichek made medals out of cookies.

Caroline Wellnitz (13) throws the rock as Taavi Salmela (left) and Iita Salmela sweep on a homemade curling rink in the Salmela yard in Duluth. Clint Austin /

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During a recent visit to the Congdon home, there were an indeterminate number of kids from the neighborhood sledding, skiing, curling, whizzing past on saucers.

A rumor spread that some of the lugers use wax on the bottom of the sleds.

When Mimmu Salmela called out “who wants to try curling,” at least five hopefuls scampered down to the rink. It was a relatively warm day, and the ice was a bit bumpy. Vasichek, a former UMD hockey player, passed along words of wisdom.

“Hey. Everybody has to use the same ice,” she told the young athletes.

She later swept the rink, and someone referred to her as the Zamboni.

Almost everyone took a break when Chad Salmela emerged from the back door with a tray of Moomin mugs filled with hot chocolate. Earlier in the day, he said he had repaired patches on the luge track where the grass was poking through.

Life has gotten easier since the backyard Olympic venue was born. Mimmu Salmela said the kids wake early, slip into snow gear, and hit the luge track before school.

“In Finland, when I grew up, if there was (Olympic) skiing on, the whole class would stop and watch,” she said.

The Olympics were a big part of Chad Salmela’s childhood, too, and he still thinks the athletes make great role models.

“The nice thing about Olympic sports — they aren’t getting rich,” he said. “People are doing it for the love of it.”

As the afternoon waned, a few of the kids disappeared up into the foliage of a tree in the backyard.

“We have a new sport,” Mimmu Salmela said. “Tree climbing.”