Estonian Athletes of the Year 2021 revealed


The women's olympic gold-winning épée team dominated Wednesday's Sports Stars of the Year ("Spordiaasta tähed 2021") awards gala, taking the prizes for the individual women's, the team and the coach categories. Hurdler Rasmus Mägi was nominated top men's sportsperson for the third time, while swimmer Eneli Jefimova supplanted Kelly Sildaru as young athlete of the year. 

The winners of the award, known informally as a "Kristjan", named after two-time Olympic champ Kristjan Palusalu, saw off strong competition from the likes of Anett Kontaveit, as well as Kontaveit's coach, Dmitry Tursunov.

Women's award – Katrina Lehis

Katrina Lehis, who won bronze in the individual épée in Tokyo in July, was also one of the four-woman team which clinched gold at the same games, meaning she was recognized twice at Wednesday's award ceremony.

On receiving her individual award as woman sportsperson of the year, Lehis, 27 said: "It is a great honor for me to stand here, given how strong the nominees alongside me were."

"When people in your own country send you videos and pictures of how they had been crying, clinking glasses and even stopping the car by the side of the road because their emotions were so powerful, you want to go back to the piste right away."

"Many thanks to all the people in Estonia, who have lived through this with us and supported us. This is a very powerful emotion that you are giving back to us, and makes what we work for every day worth it," she continued.

Lehis overcame tennis star Anett Kontaveit – albeit by just the one point – and wrestler Epp Mäe, who also took part in the Tokyo games.

Fencers have dominated the roster of woman sportsperson of the year in the past, with Maarika Võsu, Heidi Rohi, Oksana Jermakova and Svetlana Tširkova (the careers of the latter two spanned both the Soviet era and independent Estonia - ed.).

Men's award - Rasmus Mägi

Hurdler Rasmus Mägi was nominated men's sportsperson of the year, the third time he has won the honor.

In his acceptance speech, Mägi, 29, said: "I am delighted that a generation of young, ambitious athletes are coming up in Estonia, those who do not simply deal in talking in conditionals. We have reason to be optimistic. I wish all young people who start their journey a strong backbone."

Mägi, who won the title in 2014 and 2016, came seventh in the Tokyo 400-meter hurdles final, setting a domestic record of 48.11s in an event which saw all-time fastest times posted.

Other nominees shortlisted were swimmer Kregor Zirk and cyclist Rein Taaramäe.

New youth athlete of the year after Sildaru five-year streak

Swimmer Eneli Jefimova was named young athlete of the year, marking the end of the lengthy reign of ski star Kelly Sildaru, who won the title five years on the trot.

Jefimova won silver in the 100m breast-stroke at the short-track European Championships, in addition to a full suite of medals at the junior championships – gold in the 100 m breaststroke, silver in the 200m and bronze in the 50m breaststroke.

In Tokyo, she reached the 100m breaststroke semi-finals – the furthest a woman swimmer from Estonia had progressed since Sydney 2000.

Women's épée team takes team award

There were no surprises in the team event, with the épée team of Lehis, Erika Kirpu, Julia Beljajeva and Irina Embrich taking Gold –the first since Gerd Kanter pulled off the feat in the discus in Beijing in 2008, and also the first in for women athletes in the summer games since Erika Salumäe (track cycling) in Barcelona in 1992.

Embrich, the veteran of the line-up, said that she felt proud. "I have had a very long career, that has been successful, thanks to the team. I thank and cherish everyone who supported me during my career. I wish you a successful new sporting year, and see you at the Paris Olympics!"

Beljajeva said: "This journey to the Olympic medal has been a long and difficult one for us. Both the European Championship and World Championship gold medals have been hung on our necks, but it was in the Tokyo Olympics that the stars aligned so well that our dream of winning olympic gold came true. Thank you to all our supporters; to the coaches and home clubs who have raised us up."

Meanwhile, Erika Kirpu said: "I would like to thank all of you who lived through this with us: Who cried with joy with us, who jumped up to the ceiling. Your support was felt in Tokyo. The Estonian people can live with you. Thank you," Kirpu added.

The Estonian epee team has earned the team title of the year five times before: In 1995, 2002, 2013, 2014 and in 2017.

Épée women's coach also bags a 'Kristjan'  

The women's epee team trainer, Kaido Kaaberma, was named the coach of the year. "I want to thank the golden woman: you did wonderful things in Tokyo," Kaaberma said on accepting his award.

"This 'Kristjan' honor does not belong 100 percent to me, it also belongs to all of you individual coaches. This is our common achievement," he went on.

The award was in fact Kaaberma's second "Kristjan" - though his first came as a competing fencer himself, back in 1992, when he was picked as top men's sportsperson.

The Sports Stars 2021 awards were based on both a public vote and those from sports journalists and sports organizations.

66,200 unique voters joined 66 sports organizations and 43 sports journalists, ERR's sports portal reports.                                                                                                                                           Text:ERR