Turku's famous faces

Turku has produced some pretty fantastic people. We now put the spotlight on a few of the city's most famous faces of the modern era.

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Seuraava artikkeli
Photo: Raakkel Närhi / Turun Museokeskus

It was 1924 and the sun was beating down in Paris. Almost 40 athletes were vying for Olympic glory in the individual cross-country event, but one by one, staggering and collapsing from the scorching heat and toxic fumes generated by a nearby power station, they dropped out of the race. 

Only 15 runners ever managed to cross the finish line. The winner was almost 90 seconds in front of his nearest rival, leading some reporters to joke that he had time to shower, dress, and return as a spectator. So, who was this fast-moving frontrunner? Paavo Nurmi, of course. 

When it comes to famous Finns born and raised in Turku, there are few more legendary than Paavo Nurmi. Over a celebrated career, he set more than 20 world records and won nine Olympic gold medals. At the 1924 Paris Olympics, he finished first in the 1,500 metres, and then, less than two hours later, snatched victory in the 5,000 metres. It’s no wonder that he was nicknamed the Flying Finn. 

Paavo set the bar high, but Turku has continued to produce some pretty fantastic people (even if we do say so ourselves). It’s here that an NHL captain got his big break, a DJ laid down an iconic riff, and a Finnish president learned the value of hard work. 

On the ice

Ice hockey fans, this one’s for you. Turku has turned out its share of world-class players, but there’s one who is considered among the greatest Finns to have ever graced the ice: Saku Koivu. He began playing professionally in the 90s and made his mark early on, winning two SM-liiga championships with TPS (Turku’s local team). But the NHL was calling, and before long, Saku moved across the Atlantic to join the Montreal Canadiens, the oldest and most successful team in the league. 

Saku went on to play 18 seasons in the NHL; he captained the Canadiens for a decade, and later joined the Anaheim Ducks to play alongside his good friend, Teemu Selänne. Saku was also a fixture on the Finnish national team, taking home three bronze medals and a silver over four Olympic Games as well as a memorable gold medal at the 1995 World Championships (plus plenty more). 

It’s a long list of achievements, but it’s even more mind-boggling when you consider that Saku was diagnosed with cancer six seasons into his NHL career. Thankfully, he made a remarkable recovery, skating back onto the ice to a thunderous eight-minute standing ovation, and later receiving the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his courage. He finally hung up his skates in 2014. 

By the way, Saku is not the only Koivu to have played professional ice hockey. His younger brother, Mikko, served as captain of the Minnesota Wild for 11 of his 15 seasons there, and went on to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets before announcing his retirement in early 2021. Like Saku, Mikko also played for Finland, leading the team to a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships.

Photo: Jyri Sulander / SPL

On the field

Did you catch the 2020 UEFA European Championships? It was a huge deal here; it was the first time Finland had ever qualified, and the goalkeeper was a proud Turku local, Lukas ‘Luke’ Hradecky. He was born in Bratislava, but his family relocated to Turku when Lukas was just one year old. He grew up playing football alongside his two younger brothers, who both play professionally these days, and started his senior career in TPS colours (a Turku club, which shares the same name as the ice hockey team).  

In 2009 Lukas moved to Denmark to play for Esbjerg fB, and just over a decade and three clubs later, the accolades haven’t stopped. As well as winning the Danish Cup and Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013, Lukas has so far been named Finnish Footballer of the Year four times, plus he was voted the 2020 Finnish Athlete of the Year. Right now, he plays for Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga and he’s ranked as one of the most valuable goalkeepers in Europe. He’s also a staple of the Finnish national team, known for his good hands and good humour.

Photo: Turun Museokeskus

On the racetrack

It’s no secret that Finns can hold their own in motorsports, and back in the early 70s, it was all about Jarno Saarinen. Born and bred in Turku, Jarno was a first-class motorcycle racer, whose riding style is still talked about today. He got his start racing on ice, taking out the 250cc national title in 1965, but proved to be just as talented on the road. 

In 1972 Jarno became the first Finn ever to win a motorcycle road racing world championship. And the following year, he claimed victory in the Daytona 200, a feat which, at that point, no other European had ever achieved. But on 20 May 1973, while racing in the Italian Grand Prix, Jarno was killed in a tragic accident. He was 27 years old. In 2009 Jarno was inducted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame, and a few years ago, a memorial statue was unveiled beside the Aura River.

Photo: Nana Simelius

In the studio

At the turn of the millennium, there was one particular tune that was almost guaranteed to fill a dancefloor. It was called Sandstorm and twenty years later, this trance classic is still embraced by ravers, gamers, and sports fans across the world. It’s racked up more than 200 million views on YouTube and it’s been streamed at least that many times on Spotify. 

The man behind the music was Ville Virtanen, a self-taught DJ and producer better known as Darude. Now, we know he’s not technically from Turku (he grew up about 100 kilometres to the north), but it’s here that everything began. The story goes that Darude gave a demo to another DJ and producer, Jaakko Salovaara, while at a club in Turku one night. That demo turned out to be his golden ticket: Jaakko signed Darude to his record label, and Sandstorm was released soon afterwards.

But Darude has been no one-hit wonder. Since those early days, he’s made a bunch of records, performed around the globe, and even represented Finland at Eurovision, the long-running song contest beloved worldwide. He’s also not the only musician with a Turku connection. Teemu Brunila, who was part of The Crash and now writes for superstars like Kylie Minogue, is a home-grown turkulainen, while rock musician Michael Monroe, best known as the lead singer of cult band Hanoi Rocks, has adopted the city as his own.

Photo: Joalin Management

On social media

Haven’t heard the name Joalin Loukamaa? Expect that all to change in coming years. She’s multitalented, multilingual, and has seven million (and growing) followers on social media; that’s more people than the entire population of Finland.

Joalin is a dancer, singer, and model as well as the Finnish rep in the hugely popular global group, Now United. While she has spent most of her 20 years in Spain and Mexico, Joalin was born right here in Turku. And, in 2020, she moved back to Finland, where she’s since been working on her music, competing on the Finnish version of Survivor, and bringing her love of Turku to the world. 

Photo: Sotamuseo / Puolustusvoimat

In politics

Did you know that Finland has a prime minister as well as a president? And, in the second half of the 20th century, there was one Turku local who wound up as both. His name was Mauno Koivisto, and he was born into a working-class family in 1923. His father was a carpenter at a shipyard here in Turku, and Koivisto, after fighting on the frontline in the Continuation War (1941 – 44), also went to work at the harbour. 

Koivisto was known for his intelligence and determination, and while working, he trained as a teacher and later earned his PhD in sociology. He was also an active member of the Social Democratic Party (one of Finland’s main political parties) and took on the job of Minister of Finance in 1966, bringing almost a decade of experience as a bank manager to the role. Just two years later, Koivisto became Prime Minister. 

Another stint as PM followed in the late 70s, and then, in 1982, Koivisto was elected as President of the Republic of Finland. He remained in this position until 1994, striving for peace in a changing world. Koivisto passed away in 2017, aged 93.

Photo: Patrick Sarfati

On paper

It’s been a whirlwind ride through Turku’s famous faces, but we can’t wrap up without mentioning Tom of Finland, one of the most acclaimed Finns to ever put pencil to paper. He was born Touko Laaksonen in 1920. Life’s twists and turns took him to Helsinki and beyond, but we love to boast that he spent his childhood at Ristimäki in Kaarina, just a few kilometres from the centre of Turku. 

Tom became renowned for his erotic drawings, filled with hypermasculine characters who were proud, powerful, and playful. He passed away in 1991, but his ground-breaking illustrations continue to have a profound impact, promoting a message of strength, respect, and tolerance.  

The non-profit Tom of Finland Foundation honours Tom’s memory by spreading the word about the importance of erotic art. And his popularity has only skyrocketed in recent years; in fact, there has never been a more sought-after stamp set created by the Finnish postal service than those featuring Tom’s iconic images.

And the list goes on…

So, are there some names missing from this list? You bet. Truth be told, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but you’ll just have to visit Turku to find out more!

Text Kathleen Cusack

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