GANGNEUNG-Finland forward Riikka Valila, who followed her brothers into hockey at age seven, is now a mother of three and the oldest women's hockey player in Olympic history at age 44.

In Finland's 3-1 opening round-robin loss to the United States on Sunday in their Pyeongchang opener, Valila also became the oldest Winter Olympian in Finland history, replacing figure skater Ludowika Jakobsson-Eilers, who was 43 in 1928.

"To be able to do it once again, to be able to do it in that age, I'm very thankful," Valila said. "After Sochi, I felt good in my body and I still felt that I can improve, I can be better on the ice. I don't have to prove anything to myself or anybody else. I just enjoy playing... I'm getting better and I can help the team. After this season is over, if everything feels good, then I continue."  Valila, who has played on six bronze-medal world championship Finnish teams, helped Finland to Olympic bronze in 1998 in women's Olympic ice hockey debut. She was also on the 2002 squad that placed fourth but retired in 2003 to start a family.

She now has two sons and a daughter with husband Mika, a 1990s pro hockey player in Sweden and Finland, and after a decade off returned in 2013 and played in Sochi 2014. "I was quite tired of hockey when I was around 29, 30," she recalled. "When I got my first child, I wanted to be with him a lot. Then I got the second and third children too and had difficulty leaving them. I wanted to concentrate on the children and had also started working and living as an ordinary person.

"I was a manager in the Finland women's team in 2012-13, the season before Sochi. We had a joke that I should make a comeback. Somewhere, however, this feeling was awakened that it would be great fun to join again."

Valila, who hopes to play in next year's world championships, became the oldest woman to score an Olympic goal when she netted one against Russia in 2014. That's when thoughts of Pyeongchang began. "I had been training for one season, one year, and then it was like, why not? Why not keep on doing it because I love to train and I love to play hockey," she said. "It would have been almost for nothing to only play for one year."

Now she's a physiotherapist and playing for Swedish club HV71, following her brother Lasse Nieminen into the pro ranks just as she followed him onto the frozen rinks all those years ago. "I have two big brothers who play hockey and I wanted to do the same as them," she said.

If Finland can reach the podium again, she will become the third Winter Olympian to capture medals 20 years apart after Swiss hockey player Bibi Torriani in 1928 and 1948 and Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai in 1994 and 2014.

 

 

 

USA's Gigi Marvin (L) and Finland's Riikka Valila wait to face off during the final period of their ice hockey match.–AFP