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Then & Now: Chasing the Phantom Finn at the Boston Marathon

In 1934, Finnish immigrant Taavi “Dave” Komonen won the prestigious Boston Marathon, becoming the only Sudburian in history to earn that honour
Known as the “Phantom Finn” or the “Flying Finn,” Dave Komonen crosses the finish line to win the Boston Marathon in 1934, the only Sudburian to earn that honour.

Whether you call him the “Phantom Finn” or the “Flying Finn”, Taavi “Dave” Komonen is the only Sudburian ever to win the famous Boston Marathonl, and one of the greatest of runners to come to the Nickel District. 

Born in Finland in 1900, Komonen was a latecomer to running as he didn’t take it up until he was 26 years old. In 1931, he emigrated to Canada first taking up residence in Toronto. 

The following spring he competed in his first Boston Marathon and even through stifling 100-degree heat, he managed to finish seventh. By 1933, Komonen began to rack up impressive wins in prestigious races across North America, along with coming in second in the Boston Marathon. 

Dave Komonen is all smiles representing Frood Mine in a race in 1934. Source: Maclean's Magazine, June 15, 1934

Unfortunately, after the Boston race, Komonen sold his shoes for $4 to pay for a ticket back to Toronto. On account of his racing wins that year, Komonen was awarded the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada’s male athlete of the year.

Sadly, while still in Toronto, and despite his burgeoning racing fame, Komonen lived an almost destitute life. It was Toronto in the Depression and there just wasn’t a lot of work. His only source of income in the three years he had been in Canada came from the sale of running shoes designed and made by himself.

Three members of the Sudbury Lions Club travelled to Toronto to ask him to compete in a big holiday race the club was sponsoring. At the same time, they learned from Komonen’s racing friends about the poor conditions he was living under. The man who would be named the Flying Finn readily accepted their invitation to run in the Lion's Club race. 

He won the race handily and as a bonus prize discovered that his hosts had secured a job for him as a carpenter at Frood Mine. 

While awaiting the arrival of spring and the start of another marathon season, Komonen trained throughout the winter. Every evening, he jogged through the snow-covered streets of Sudbury. When the snow became impassable, Komonen strapped on a pair of cross-country skis and continued with his training program over the expansive countryside. 

Sudburians looked forward to the first race of 1934 to see how their new sports hero would perform. In that race, Komonen represented the Frood Athletic Association in a Good Friday race in Toronto. However, part-way through the race, he shocked onlookers by pulling out, something he had never before done. 

Cover of the Boston Globe newspaper on April 20, 1934, announcing Sudburian Taavi “Dave” Komonen's Boston Marathon win. Supplied

This didn’t deter him, Komonen persevered and entered the Boston Marathon. There was some apprehension among his supporters about whether this 35-year-old unknown — who was called the “Flying Finn" or the “Phantom Finn” around the Nickel Belt —  would be able to afford the expensive trip to Boston. 

Luckily, at the last moment, the Frood Athletic Association provided him with the necessary funds. 

Despite his poor showing at the Toronto race, he was selected as the favourite to win in Boston amongst the 192 other entrants, which included many past and multiple winners. 

After the mass start, Komonen nestled within a large group of runners just behind the leaders. By the five-mile marker, Komonen galloped along in third spot. About mid-way in the race, Komonen caught and passed the race leader. 

At the final checkpoint before the finish line, the “Flying Finn” put on a burst of speed, surging further into the lead. The runner trailing him could not respond in kind and Komonen coasted to victory. 

"It almost seemed like he was on roller skates," reported one source at the time, though, in fact, they were Komonen’s homemade shoes (“they must have weighed a pound apiece”) that helped give him his intense speed.

Komonen completed the Boston Marathon course in a time of 2 hours, 32 minutes, 53 (and four-fifths) seconds. The Boston Globe reported on his victory.

“Komonen is a sallow chap, spindle legged and thin armed, but under this skin you see a fine play of muscles. He started out wearing a handkerchief knotted into four points, but he removed that during the route and then plodded along with his thin hair damp against his forehead. He had a wrist watch on his arm and frequently referred to it.

“He has a typical marathoner’s stride, his soft gray shoes with heels — made by himself — pounding away in a very short stride, the heels touching the pavement first. His uniform affecting the general color scheme of a Boston trolley car, was soon plastered to his back with water and perspiration … The effects on the Canadian marathon champion rather ridiculed the 26 miles, 385 yards he had battled. His only visible marks of the stern conflict were a blister, dime size and a tremendous appetite.”

The "Phantom Finn," was presented with a silver cup and a laurel wreath by then Boston Mayor Frederick Mansfield in front of thousands of cheering spectators. Komonen became the ninth Canadian to capture the Boston Marathon honours. Through an interpretor, he conveyed his thanks to the multitudes gathered around him.

Sudburians revelled in the victory of the carpenter from Frood Mine. Mayor W. Marr Brodie immediately wired a message to him: "The City of Sudbury congratulates you heartily on your splendid victory." 

Upon Komonen's return, a banquet was given by the Board of Trade in his honour. More than 300 appreciative citizens attended to witness the presentation of gifts and testimonials to the city's newest sports celebrity.

Dave Komonen crosses  the finish line to win the National AAU Marathon from Mount Vernon, Virginia, to the White House for the second time (June 9, 1934), setting a new record and breaking his own previous record. Supplied

After his victory in Boston, Komonen received high praise from the dean of Canadian sportswriters, Lou Marsh (a trophy that is awarded annually to Canada's top athlete was named after him), who paid tribute to the Sudbury runner in The Toronto Star.

“Here we had right in our midst a young Finn who came here to make a living and become a Canadian, an honest hardworking lad with not a lazy bone in his body and a good living lad who went around silently minding his own business, a young man who trained hard and kept himself to a rigorous diet of fish and rye bread when he could get it — and kept on plugging away … . He asked them for a job — anything — a labourer's job but all he got was ‘We'll do what we can’.

“And then came the offer from Sudbury — a job with the Frood Mine — a carpenter’s job — a job where he could earn his own living and be beholden to nobody. Thanks Sudbury for taking Taavi Komonen in and giving him his chance and thanks to the Frood miners who paid his way down to Boston to bring outstanding honour to his home of adoption … Dave Komonen got a raw deal from Toronto. He got a good deal from Sudbury and I'm tickled to the well-known thin shade of red to know that he has made good.”

Unfortunately, the victory in the Boston Marathon proved to be the climax of Komonen's career. He continued to post significant wins (including the London Marathon), but he never achieved the heights he reached in those two momentous years of 1933-34. He did not go quietly into that good night, though, as he remained a regular fixture within the local racing circles while competing in various events around the district for years to come.

Jason Marcon is a writer and history enthusiast in Greater Sudbury. He runs the Coniston Historical Group and the Sudbury Then and Now Facebook page. Then & Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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