Day in the Life: Tiit the sport facilities manager

Tiit Tammemäe, the sport facilities manager at Tehvandi Sports Center, stops briefly in front of the snow cannons used to produce artificial snow. Friday, 11 January 209.
Tiit Tammemäe, the sport facilities manager at Tehvandi Sports Center, stops briefly in front of the snow cannons used to produce artificial snow. Friday, 11 January 209. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

One might think that, in terms of ski conditions, the more snow in the forecast, the better. The night before a major cross-country event, however, it's sometimes better to cross your fingers that the trails you and your team spent days prepping and grooming to standard don't see another centimetre. My name is Tiit Tammemäe, and I am the manager of sport facilities at Tehvandi Sports Center.

I wake up very early, around 6:20 or 6:30 in the morning, because I have an hour's drive to work ahead from my home in the countryside in Viljandi County. Occasionally, especially ahead of more important races, the trail groomers who live nearby will already be out working by that time — even as early as 3 in the morning — if they for some reason couldn't get the trails prepped the night before. But usually we're not needed quite that early.

I check the weather in the morning, as depending on the temperature and other conditions I may have to give myself extra time to drive. But we make time to eat breakfast together as a family.

I live together with my wife, who is a ski instructor, and our two grown sons, the elder of whom is an official at the Environmental Inspectorate and the younger of whom is studying mechatronics in university. We all have different schedules, but for the most part we are able to sit down and start our day together.

After breakfast and a cup of coffee, I hit the road. Some people don't like such a long commute, but I enjoy it. The hour in the car by myself gives me time to think about things, and think through some work-related things, as well as listen to the news on the radio and catch up with what is going on in the outside world. Sometimes I'll listen to some music too.

When I arrive at work, the head trail groomer fills me in on the current conditions of our various trails — if I haven't already been called in the meantime with an emergency. We discuss what needs to be done, draw up our plans for the day, and then get to work.

Trail conditions

One perhaps less exciting part of my workday is publishing updates on trail conditions if anything has changed significantly. I'm not a Facebook person — we have a marketing person who will update our Facebook page — but I compile info regarding our trail conditions, which we then send to our marketing person, our front desk person, some neighbouring hotels, the Tourist Information Centre in Otepää, the Health Trails website, and a few other places like that. I'd prefer not to have to do that if nothing has changed since the last update, because I believe you should take care of higher priority issues before you spend time on lower priority ones. But they want the info.

The sports centre has so many different areas — a ski-jump hill, a shooting range, various trails… I can't go check each of them out personally or I'd be doing that alone through lunchtime, so I get info regarding conditions at each one from subordinates in charge of each area. If there's anything I want to double-check for myself, then I'll head there. But the average person isn't interested in conditions on the ski-jump hill; the latter info we send directly to trainers.

I have enough outdoor work to do to keep me outside through lunchtime. After lunch I'll try to take care of some administrative work in the office, which includes some bureaucratic stuff, Excel spreadsheets, recording the number of hours we've used our snow guns, or snow cannons, and logistics work. I have to divide my time between the hands-on, outdoor work and the latter "paperwork." But the majority of my workday is still typically spent outside.

Decades of progress

I've been involved in skiing since I was child. I grew up in Viljandi, where I graduated high school with a concentration in skiing, and then served conscription. After my time in the army was up, I was hired at Holstre-Polli Recreational Centre outside of Viljandi, where I started out managing the skiing facilities and quickly worked my way up to director of Holstre-Polli Ski Centre. I didn't have any subordinates to lean on there and had to do everything myself, but over the course of 30 years I gained a lot of experience, and even earned an International Ski Federation (FIS) technical delegate (TD) licence, which means I am granted advisory control over pre-race and race operations. A few years ago my time at Holstre-Polli was up for political reasons, to put it delicately, and then I came to work at Tehvandi. As of next year, I'll have worked in this field for 35 years already.

Things have come a long way in that 35 years. Back in the day, a trail was groomed by hooking up an old spring mattress to a snowmobile. That's not to say it didn't get the job done — even back then, you wanted to do a good job grooming trails! But the technology has just developed in leaps and bounds. Trail grooming machines are even heated now; which means you don't have to be out there in a giant fur coat when doing your work anymore. A large tractor used for trail grooming can cost up to €400,000. Back when we were hauling mattresses behind snowmobiles, phones were still those things connected to landlines at home. It's a good thing that the technology has developed so much; it's allowed us to really increase the quality of the trails and conditions for our skiers.

Last year, I toured the facilities in Italy where our snow cannons are produced. Each ski centre has its own signature color machines — those in Austria are white, for example — so when locals look out over a valley, they can tell which ski centre the machines belong to based on their colour. Because the machines are so expensive, we hire maintenance service for them through the seller, and once per year, ahead of the beginning of the new season, they will send a specialist out to Otepää to service our machines. The closest ones travel in from Latvia and Finland.

Should a machine we need for trail grooming or snowmaking break down, we have a backup — this is why we keep two of everything around. In a real emergency, though, if both are down for some reason, we can contact another ski centre elsewhere in Estonia and ask to loan theirs. Once, for example, something we needed broke down the night before a competition, and we had a loaner brought in from Jõulumäe Sports and Recreation Centre just south of Pärnu; the trails were ready to go by the starting gun in the morning. We help each other out like that.

The science of snowmaking

You might think that, given our work, then the more snow, the better. But that isn't always the case. There have been times I have hired in snow removal from our trails, only to call back the next day and hire in vehicles for snow dispersal. In such cases, we are actually clearing trails of natural snow in order to lay down artificially produced snow, which hardens better and provides a more consistent base to work with.

Snowmaking is a science of its own, although we're still subject to Mother Nature, and try as we might to keep a sharp eye on weather forecasts from various agencies across Europe, predicting the weather is still more of an art form. We might see today that they are calling for -10C tomorrow and prepare the snow cannons for snow production, and then in the morning discover that it is only -5C out. The most optimal temperature range for producing snow is -15C to -18C, which takes the most efficient advantage of the machines' energy consumption; colder than that and the water starts to freeze in the pipes, and warmer than -5C and there's no point in making snow, because it just isn't efficient enough, and the water doesn't want to freeze at that point. If the forecast only calls for one night of ideal temperatures, there's no point in trying to start making snow, hauling out all the hoses and cables and so on only to pack them up again the next day. If we have to, we will, but ideally we'll work on making snow for days in a row, or even a week straight if there's not enough snow on the trails. Depending on the exact temperature, of course, it takes ten snow cannons approximately 24 hours to cover 1km of 6m-wide trail with 35cm of snow up to required standards.

The most ideal, of course, is when it's some -7C or -8C out the night before an event, you can get the trail groomed and all trail markers out as needed and it doesn't snow any more overnight, and when you arrive in the morning there's nothing to do. Of course at that point you may wonder why you bothered coming in so early, but you never know — if overnight winds have messed anything up, you need to be there early and fix everything up before the clients start hitting the trails.

I did all of this work by myself for 30 years at my previous job, but now I have subordinates working for and alongside me as well that help take care of the centre's various areas. I still try to do as much hands-on work myself as possible, but I also delegate tasks to them. I know what they are capable of, and I trust them. I leave things for them to decide. We might discuss how certain things should best be done, but I don't force my opinions on them either. Sometimes it'll turn out that I am wrong, and I'll learn something new too. But because I have done all of this work myself, I know that if I can do it, they can do it too; I never ask for anything ridiculous and impossible. And I trust them.

Competitions come first

Our clients, ie the organisers of various races and events, will sometimes ask for certain things to be done in a way that we wouldn't do them. I can try to explain to them why I wouldn't, or we can discuss it at meetings, but sometimes they will still contact us again the next day and ask for things to be done the way they want, at which point I will give in, but with the caveat that I won't be held responsible if something goes wrong at that point.

Overall, though, as we are a sports centre focused on competitions, and thus focused on offering the highest quality conditions possible for these events, then they take priority over regular people being able to come and ski. We do try to keep some trails open that aren't affected by an event going on, for example, but unless you are coming to compete, you can figure that between late December and late March, you may not be able to hit the trails at the weekend. During this high season, there are times that even I don't end up going home for the night because there is so much to do. Sometimes that ends up being for the best, as you might get woken up at 2 in the morning after a trail groomer managed to suck 200m of TV cable into his machine that was needed for a live TV broadcast the next day. That actually happened once.

That being said, on more typical workdays, my day ends around 5 in the evening, at which point I have an hour's drive home usually accompanied by good music and another opportunity to reflect on my workday and what needs to be done. Of course, I believe that if you are going to work, then do your work well, which sometimes requires me to stay longer to get something done, but since we are all athletes in my family, we are also understanding of the situation if I or my wife, for example, don't get home until later.

Nowadays it's very convenient — you can call ahead and warn your family that you will be running late today, or one of the kids can offer to go to the store and get dinner going in the meantime. Despite our unreliable schedules, we still try to make an effort to sit down and eat together again.

Making time for family

I have built our home in the countryside myself, from scratch. My mother was born in Keeni, in Valga County, and my father is a Seto who was born in Izborsk, known in Estonian as Irboska, in what used to be part of Estonia, in Petseri County, but is now part of Russia's Pskov Oblast. But I was born and raised in Viljandi, so my family's home is closer to my own childhood home, while my work is closer to my roots, so to speak. Because my days tend to run on the long side, I make a point to take maximum advantage of my days off, and there is always plenty to do at home. And I never say no to a good sauna, which we usually take as a family two nights per week. Usually on Saturday nights, but sometimes on Sundays or even on a weeknight, depending on our schedules.

Because working on ski trails isn't enough, I am also chairman of the board of the Viljandi Ski Club. For a time I also served on the Cross-country Skiing Subcommittee of the Estonian Ski Association, but not recently — I figure it's a good idea to let the young people take over. Because of my work and because I ski myself, although less often lately than I used to, I know skiing inside and out. As a skier I know what conditions are best, and as facility manager I know what is technically possible and what isn't. From both sides I can say that the quality of ski trails has improved dramatically over the years.

Even off skis, I enjoy taking long walks in nature, sometimes together with my older son. He is a World Rogaining Championship silver medalist, though, so his idea of a long walk is typically a bit more extreme than mine — involving up to 72 hours of long-distance cross-country orienteering.

Generally speaking, during ski season, which is very short at just three months long, I don't really make it anywhere beyond work and back home. There are major events to prep for every weekend, sometimes two in one day, as was the case on Saturday. Summers are much quieter in that regard; there is still work to do, grass to be mown, but our main focus at the sports centre is winter sports. But those are just choices and sacrifices you have to make if you want to do work like this. And I believe that if you are going to do your job, then do it well. I do work that I know how to do, and I believe that I know how to do it very well. Although who's to judge? The skiers, I suppose.

At night, after dinner, I'll watch the evening news on TV. Sometimes a good film will be on, and I'll end up watching that. Of course, afterward I think to myself that I should have gone to bed sooner, that I don't need to finish it, and they'll show it again sometime, maybe a bit earlier — I try to be in bed by 10, and sometimes end up going to bed as late as 11 at night as a result. But the good films tend to be shown very late.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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