The Finnish Flame: Valtteri Halonen

Photo Courtesy: Carl Labonge III

By Alex Labonge, Swimming World College Intern

Behind the blocks, Valtteri Halonen stands gazing into the water, contemplating the race that will begin in mere moments. The water before him appears calm and cool, unaware that it will soon be violently disturbed by a heat of swimmers.

Halonen clears his mind, preparing to release a hellish fury on the water for one of his final times. But beneath the cap and goggles is so much more than the outward appearing beast of a swimmer.

Halonen, the 22-year-old senior from Kouvola, Finland, has been the definition of dominance throughout his career at UNCW and his accomplishments speak for themselves. He has won nine CAA Swimmer of the Week titles in the past three seasons, holds school records in the 100 and 200 backstroke, holds school and conference records in the 200 and 400 medley relays, ranks 3rd in school history in 100 butterfly, and led the team in scoring in 2013.

Halonen takes his schoolwork very seriously. He began his collegiate career on the business major path, but that changed once he realized math was not his thing. He will graduate this May with a major in International Studies in addition to a minor in Political Science, although he is unsure whether he will pursue a career in these fields.

Swimming Beginnings

Halonen’s swimming career began when he was eight years old. His two older sisters, Laura and Katri, also swam and have offered him huge encouragement throughout his career. His parents, Sipra and Kari Halonen, have always been very supportive of his swimming and traveling all over Europe to watch his meets.

Halonen was not just a swimmer through his childhood. Up until age 14, he was an avid soccer player, but faced the dilemma that most serious athletes face in their young careers: which sport to choose.

Halonen experienced pressure from his family to choose swimming or soccer, because he didn’t have the time to do both. While he does miss playing soccer, he doesn’t miss the frustrations of personally having a good game, but losing if the team as a whole did not do well.

Halonen’s big breakout swims came in 2010 as part of the Finnish Junior National Team. At the 2010 European Junior Championships in Helsinki, Halonen, who wasn’t expected to score in an individual event, dropped over a second in his 50 meter butterfly and finished fourth overall, just missing out on a podium spot.

Coming Stateside


Photo Courtesy: Carl Labonge III

Upon nearing his high school graduation, Halonen had to make a choice — whether to stay in Finland or travel abroad.

“I had a few friends from back home who came to the United States to swim,” Halonen said. “The swimming community is very small here [United States] and even smaller in Finland. I would talk to my friends and swimming here was highly recommended. People normally go into military service after high school, but coming here gave me the chance to keep swimming and get a degree.”

Leaving home and moving to another country half the world away had its challenges. In Finland, children begin to learn English around when they are 10 years old, but Halonen didn’t have any true practice until he me to the United States for school. He also can speak some Swedish, in addition to Finnish and English.

“The most difficult thing for me is how quickly things evolve,” Halonen said. “For example, my sister had a baby [back in Finland] a few weeks ago, and I get the information in chunks. My family and I Skype every Sunday, but it is very not having day-to-day interactions with them.”

A large difference in life from Finland to the United States for Halonen is the amount of small talk that exists in conversation. He has noticed that in the United States, people are much more friendly, while in Finland conversations can be short and very blunt.

“I really like how in America people are very approachable,” said Halonen. “When I approach and talk to my professors, they are always willing to spend time and help me.”

Shift In Leadership

One of the added challenges facing Halonen, as well as the rest of the senior Seahawks on the team, was the retirement of 37-year head coach and program founder Dave Allen.

“It has been a challenge going from doing the same thing for three years and knowing what to expect to the complete unknown,” said Halonen. “With the old coaching staff, the practices were very consistent and I knew what was coming. With the new guys, it is very different; everything has been different. That also works for me because I don’t like to know what practice is going to be.”

Head coach Jason Memont is in his first year with the Seahawks. He and his coaching staff have had to deal with the expected challenges of coming into a program with such a unique history.

“Valtteri has been dominant in the pool for us this year,” Memont said. “He has put this team on his back and carried us to a couple of wins with his versatility and determination. Every day in practice Valtteri brings his best and that really rubs off on the rest of the team. I am excited to see all the hard work pay off for him this month. He will certainly be missed next year, but I personally look forward to watching him succeed in his future endeavors.”

With success comes a sense of pressure to perform.

“It is difficult having people assume that you are going to swim well all the time,” Halonen said. “I just have to try and let it go and focus on myself, and not let other people determine how I swim.”

The Gold Standard


Photo Courtesy: Carl Labonge III

Chase Copeland, a fellow senior swimmer for UNCW, has trained backstroke with Halonen for the past three and a half years.

“Valtteri always sets the gold standard for training and brings a positive attitude everyday,” Copeland said. “Even when the set is awful, he pushes everyone around him to do better. He is one of my favorite people to train with.”

Before each race, Halonen pounds on his chest, producing a fierce red mark. When asked about this, Halonen chuckled.

“I don’t know when it started,” he said. “Before my races I just do it to get ready, as well as stretch out my legs.”


After the Seahawks came up short in their effort to attain their 14th straight CAA Championship title, Halonen has decided to hang up his goggles. He recently became engaged after proposing to his fiancé Alyson Warren.  Halonen finished his degrees and successfully graduated from UNC-Wilmington. He is currently back in Finland where he plans to fulfill his mandatory military service, after which he will return to the United States for his wedding.

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