Hanna-Maria Seppala: “It was cool to make a bit of history”

Swimmer Hanna-Maria Seppala represented Finland at the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Here she recalls how it felt to make history at London 2012, as the first woman to carry the Finnish flag at an opening ceremony.

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I was so young at my first Olympic Games - I was only 15 years old when I went to Sydney in 2000. I remember at the Opening Ceremony, when the Finnish team were waiting to walk into the stadium, there were just so many people around. And there were all these superstar athletes right beside me - athletes who were so famous and who I’d only seen on television before, they were standing right next to me! That was amazing. I remember seeing Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympic gold medallist swimmer and that was so exciting. But because I was so young, I didn’t even know who everyone was so there were athletes who were huge stars but I didn’t even recognise them.

Everything at the Opening Ceremony was just huge. The good thing for me about the Games in Sydney was that neither the Finnish coaches nor myself had particularly high expectations of how I would do so I had no pressure on me which meant that I was able to just enjoy every single part of the Games. I think that helped me to perform well too - I set national records and so it was a great competition for me.

The entire Games were so fun for me and I think if you were to ask me which was my favourite Olympic Games of all five that I competed in, I would say Sydney just because it was my first one and everything was so exciting. Also, going to the Olympic Games at such a young age really motivated me to continue working hard and continue improving.

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When I was growing up, my dream was to compete in the Olympic Games so when I fulfilled that dream at the age of 15, I thought I had better come up with another goal. So being the flag-bearer was another dream of mine and I fulfilled that in 2012. To be selected to carry the flag in London was so, so special.

I found out that I had been selected to be flag-bearer around two weeks before the Opening Ceremony. I was at training and the chef de mission of the Finnish Olympic Committee phoned my coach to ask if she would be ok with her swimmer being flag-bearer. I was standing next to her when she was taking the call and I was like - yes, say yes!!! I was so excited.

I was hoping that I would perhaps be nominated to be flag-bearer but there were other athletes who were also very deserving, so to actually be the person selected was so fantastic. I was so honoured to be asked.

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The unfortunate thing about swimming is that it comes right at the start of the Games so often, the swimmers aren’t able to go to the opening ceremonies. But when I was nominated to be flag-bearer at the 2012 Olympics, of course I was going to go.

Carrying the flag was an absolutely amazing experience. Being flag-bearer is something that so few people ever have the chance to do - it’s such a privilege and it’s hard to describe exactly how it felt to be honest. And I was the first woman ever to carry the Finnish flag at the opening ceremony, so it was pretty cool to make a little bit of history.

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As I was getting ready to walk into the stadium with the flag in London, I was very nervous because I wanted to do everything right. I remember someone saying to me not to wave the flag because that’s disrespectful. And then other people were telling me that I definitely should wave the flag because it’s a sign of happiness. So I was like: “What do I do?!!” I had no idea, so I remember just going with the flow and doing whatever felt right in the moment. It was also a very emotional moment for me to carry the flag. It’s such a huge thing and an absolutely massive honour so I think that’s why I felt so emotional.

The Rio Olympics in 2016 were my last Olympic Games. The summer leading up to the Rio Games was very emotional for me because I was deciding what I was going to do - whether I was going to continue swimming or to retire. I was really struggling to know what choice to make, but then when I made the decision to go to Rio and then retire at the end of 2016, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I was able to really relax.

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It’s difficult to put into words exactly how I feel about my career, but I’m very, very proud of it. And what was also great about my career was that my mum was my coach and she was there at my five Olympic Games with me and so she went through the good times and the bad times with me which was fantastic.