German women’s national discus coach René Sack to present in a free Mcthrows.com webinar

René Sack, coach of two-time World Championship medalist Nadine Müller, and three-time European Championships bronze medalist Shanice Craft, will talk diskus technique in a free Mcthrows.com webinar on Saturday, June 6th at 12:00pm CST.

René will use video of Nadine and Shanice to delve into technical concepts.

He is a fantastic coach and great guy, and this webinar promises to be something special.

Attendees may submit questions throughout René’s presentation. Register here.

Klaus Bartonietz and Uwe Hohn present “The Javelin Technique of Johannes Vetter, Thomas Röhler, and Neeraj Chopra”

Determined to become the focal point of the javelin universe, Mcthrows.com is set to follow up presentations by Mark Mirabelli and Mike Barber with a lecture by the German biomechanist Dr. Klaus Bartonietz and the world record holder Uwe Hohn.

Titled, “The Javelin Technique of Johannes Vetter, Thomas Röhler, and Neeraj Chora” this webinar will take place on Friday, May 29th at 11:00am CST.

Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout this presentation. It is free. Register here.

Free webinar Thursday, May 28 12:00pm CST “Lance Deal Talks Hammer Technique”

On Thursday, May 28th at 12:00pm CST, American hammer great Lance Deal will discuss his concepts of hammer technique. Lance, the silver medalist at the 1996 Olympics, will use film of himself, Koji Murofushi, and 2019 World Champion DeAnna Price to illustrate his concepts.

Attendees may submit questions throughout Lance’s presention.

This is a free Mcthrows.com webinar. Register here.

Coach Mike Barber to Present on “The World Championship Technique of Kelsey-Lee Barber”

Outstanding Australian javelin coach Mike Barber will break down the technique of 2019 World Champion Kelsey-Lee Barber in a free webinar on Thursday, May 21, at 3:00pm CST. In advance of that appearance, Mike graciously provided some details about Kelsey-Lee’s career and their big night in Doha. You can register for Mike’s presentation here.

It was one of those moments that throws coaches long for and dread. In the fifth round of the women’s javelin final at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, Kelsey-Lee Barber sat in fourth place with a best throw of 62.95m. Occupying the top three spots were China’s Liu Shiying and Lyu Huihui, along with Germany’s Christin Hussong. Having set a PB of 67.70m two months before, Kelsey arrived in Doha as one of the favorites, and she still had an excellent chance to medal if she could find a groove on one of her two remaining attempts.

In the stands of Khalifa International Stadium, Mike Barber, Kelsey’s husband and coach, sat peering into the screen of an ipad. He normally did not watch video of Kelsey’s attempts during competitions but, as he said later, “Something wasn’t right,” and he needed to figure out what that was.  After her solid opener, Kelsey had planted her next three throws just on either side of the sixty-meter line (61.40m, 58.34m, 60.90m) a full five meters below what she’d need to get on the podium. She seemed stuck, he needed to help her get unstuck, and they were running out of time.  

To Mike, the video confirmed what he had suspected. Kelsey appeared a bit tentative. She seemed to be holding something back. As officials summoned her for her fifth attempt, Mike considered telling her to add half a meter to the length of her approach.“It looked like she needed more space to feel like she could run through the crossover,” he recalls. A longer run up might remove any worries she harbored about fouling and unleash her aggressiveness.

Or, it might not. 

That’s what’s so great and so treacherous about these moments. The right adjustment at the right time can help an athlete unleash a big throw when they need it the most. The wrong advice, however–no matter how well intentioned–can cause them to overthink and lose their rhythm at the worst possible time.

We’ve all been there. Maybe not at a World Championships, but sometimes in the heat of a Conference or State championship we notice a flaw in our athlete’s technique and think “That’s it! Fix that, and we’re set!”

In our excitement, we begin shouting adjustments.

 “Keep your eyes back!” 

 “Finish the throw!” 

 “Stay long! Be aggressive! But, relax!” 

Sometimes it works, but sometimes advice delivered in the heat of battle can make an athlete self-conscious and muck up their rhythm.

One year at our State Meet, I had two shot putters competing simultaneously in separate flights in different spots within the oval. It took a lot of effort–I had to bolt back and forth from one side of the stadium to the other–but I managed to shout enough suggestions to make it impossible for either of them to get comfortable. Both threw poorly, and I realized afterwards that they’d have been much better off if I’d kept my mouth shut. 

That night in Doha, Mike had to decide, as Kelsey stepped to the runway for her fifth throw, if the moment was right to suggest a change.

Luckily, he and Kelsey had survived plenty of high pressure moments during the five years they’d worked together. The entire 2016 season, for example. After taking bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and surpassing the sixty-three meter mark two years running, Kelsey hoped to make some noise at the Olympics, but instead spent the entire 2016 season trying to manage a stress fracture in her lower back. The focus of that year evolved into holding things together long enough to qualify for Rio and sample the Olympic experience–often an important step in a thrower’s development. Kelsey accomplished that goal–she finished 28th in Rio with a best of 55.25m–but the pain and uncertainty she faced made for a long and difficult summer.

She came back to set PBs in both 2017 (64.53m) and 2018 (64.57m) and picked up some additional big meet experience along the way. She made the final at the London World Championships in 2017, then won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 

The 2019 season began in promising fashion as Kelsy won the Australian Nationals with a toss of 63.33m in April, displaying in Mike’s words “a lot of horsepower.”

“She just couldn’t quite get it through the jav, but we walked away thinking ‘there’s a big throw in there, we just have to find it.’”

They found it in Lucerne in July, when Kelsey smashed a 67.70m PB that announced her as a major contender in Doha.

Unfortunately, ten days later at the London Diamond League Meeting, she suffered a flareup of a shoulder injury she’d originally sustained in 2014. I asked Mike if an injury history like Kelsey’s (she also ruptured an elbow tendon in 2012) was simply a byproduct of making a living tossing the spear.

“You want to believe that you can make your athletes resilient enough to stay healthy,” he said. “But the stress that throwing a javelin puts on your joints is immense. And going from being a sixty-four-meter thrower to a sixty-seven-meter thrower creates an exponential increase in the force on the shoulder.”

They had to adjust Kelsey’s training, and between the London meeting and Doha she never threw with anything longer than a seven-step run up, aside from at the Diamond League Final in late August where she tossed 64.74m and finished second to China’s Lyu Huihui. After that competition, Kelsey informed Brian that in spite of her shoulder issues, “I can beat Lyu. I can win the World Championships.” 

Kelsey’s confidence was encouraging, but the shoulder remained touchy right up to their final throwing session before the qualification round in Doha when Kelsey took a few tosses using a seven-step run up and experienced “a hell of a lot of pain.”

Kelsey was assigned to the first flight during qualification, and the best she could manage was 61.08m in round one. That was well short of the 63.50m automatic mark, and afterwards she and Mike retired to the indoor warmup facility to watch the live feed of the second flight and await their fate. In order to advance to the next night’s final, Kelsey would have to finish in the top twelve. 

“That was the worst!” recalled Mike. “She was sitting fifth in her pool, and looking at the list of throwers in the second flight and their PBs and what we knew of them, there were definitely eight girls that could knock her out, and there was nothing we could do except prepare as if Kelsey was in the final. She started to go through her routine, and when we eventually saw that she had made it, she said, ‘I know what I did wrong. Let’s go out there and win tomorrow!’”

So, they’d been through a lot together by the time Kelsey stepped to the runway to line up for fifth attempt in the Doha final, and that gave Mike the confidence that she could handle a last-minute adjustment.

“Kelsey!” he called out. “Move back!”

She did, and it almost worked. 

Kelsey’s throw measured 63.65m, to that point her best effort of the night, but when the fifth round ended she was still well behind Hussong (65.05m), Huihui (65.49m), and Shiying (65.88m). 

Mike says that Kelsey “carried her momentum better” on that fifth attempt but “fell off it” a bit at the end. That did not, however, diminish her confidence. “I can do this,” she assured him as they conferred before her final attempt. 

She used the lengthened run up again on her sixth throw, and this time there was no falling off at the finish. She smashed a 66.56m and vaulted into first. 

She was now in for another wait, shorter than the qualification vigil but just as agonizing. Throwing behind Kelsey in the order, Hussong, Lyu each had another shot to overtake her.

Hussong’s 65.21m, Lyu’s 62.61m, and Liu’s 65.75m must have seemed to hang in the air forever, but they did not change the final order and Kelsey became the first Australian to win a World Championship gold in the throws since Dani Samuels took discus gold in Berlin in 2009. 

If you’d like to learn more about Kelsey’s career and the technique that made her World Champion, join us this Thursday. Mike will break down Kelsey’s form using videos of some of her best throws. Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout. If you’d like to be part of this very special event, register here

Free webinar “Javelin 101–The Making of A Champion” with MarK Mirabelli coming Thursday, May 14, 12:00PM cst

On Thursday, May 14 at 12:00pm CST, Mcthrows.com will present a free webinar with Mark Mirabelli, one of the country’s finest javelin coaches.

Mark was selected by the USA Olympic Committee as one of ten coaches to participate in the “Elite Javelin Coaches Camp” in San Diego. He is a nationally renowned speaker, and the owner of the “Mark Mirabelli Throwing School,” where he trains hundreds of HS and college throwers each year.

Under Mark’s tutelage, both of his sons have become outstanding javelin throwers. Christopher Mirabelli was a three-time Big Ten champion and All-American during his career at Rutgers, and Nickolas finished third at the 2019 USATF U20 Championships as a freshman at Texas A&M.

Mark, who has produced a series of “Mark Mirabelli Throwing” DVDs and has several courses on Coachtube, will detail the process he uses to help his athletes develop outstanding jav technique.

Attendees may submit questions throughout Mark’s presentation. Register here.

An Interview with Vésteinn Hafsteinsson Part 4: Back to the mountain top

In a recent webinar, Vésteinn Hafsteinsson examined the technique of 2019 Discus World Champion Daniel Ståhl.  Prior to that presentation, Vésteinn sat for a long interview about his coaching career. This post is the last of four based on that interview. It also includes some comments Vésteinn made during the webinar.

On a July day in 2011,  Vésteinn Hafsteinsson put his arm around the broad shoulders of seventeen-year-old Daniel Ståhl and offered him a choice. “I said to him,” recalls Vésteinn, “You can keep doing what you are doing or you can decide to be the best discus thrower in the world.”

What he had been “doing” after a youth spent playing ice hockey, was dabbling at throwing the discus. 

Daniel was part of a Stockholm athletics club whose membership already included Niklas and Leif Arrhenius, world class discus throwers whom Vésteinn had mentored. The throwing coordinator of that club invited Vésteinn to stop by and work with Daniel, and Vésteinn’s first impression of the young man was that he was big, tall, and perhaps nuts.

“He was throwing into a net in Stockholm, and he was all over the place,” Vésteinn said recently. “He was screaming and laughing, throwing to the left, to the right, straight up.”

Fortunately, Vésteinn is not intimidated by “guys who are odd.” He has never forgotten the “unbelievable passion” that Gerd Kanter exuded at their first meeting, and here was this giant kid displaying a “funny craziness” that made Vésteinn think, “If you could use this energy properly, oh my god.”

Vésteinn stopped by Daniel’s club maybe six times over the next two years. Each time, he was struck by Daniel’s potential, and one day he decided to challenge him to get serious.

So, he asked Daniel to choose.

“He laughed his big laugh,” recalled Vésteinn, “And said ‘Of course I want to be the best.’ So I told him, ‘You must work with me, and be ready because it will take you eight years to reach the top.’”

It would prove to be a significant moment for the sport of athletics, and perhaps for hockey as well. How many opponents might have been obliterated against the boards had Daniel returned to the ice while filling out to his current stature of 6’7”, and 155 kilograms? Fortunately, we will never have to find out.

Vésteinn set about helping Daniel develop strength and effective technique. The greatest challenge, though, was to teach him to throw his best when it counted the most.

“In the beginning,” Vésteinn recalls, “Daniel was not a good competitor. He was a different personality than Gerd. Daniel is a comedian, while Gerd was very serious. But both needed to learn how to win.”

Luckily, one thing Gerd and Daniel had in common was their passion to be the best.  “They bought into the concept,” Vésteinn says. “They believed in what I said, and they followed it.”

While coaching both Gerd and Daniel, Vésteinn drew on his own career as a discus thrower, a career in which he struggled mightily to produce his best results in four Olympic Games and five World Championships. “I could use my weakness as an athlete,” he says now, “to be a strong coach to help them mentally.”

Three hard years of training and competing paid off when Daniel drilled a huge PB of 66.89m in 2014, but he showed at the European Championships that he still wasn’t quite ready to compete against the best. His top effort in the prelims was 59.01m, which  left him in twenty-fourth place.

He performed much better at the 2015 World Championships, reaching a season’s best 64.73m in the final and finishing in fifth place–one spot behind Gerd. But, instead of building on that performance in 2016, Daniel took a big step backwards. He upped his PB to 68.72m but could not come close to that mark in the biggest competitions. His 64.77m still got him fifth at the Euros, but he dipped to 62.26m and fourteenth place in Rio.

Gerd had endured a similar humiliation at the 2004 Games, finishing nineteenth with a throw of 60.05m–more than eight meters below his season’s best. Then, in 2005, he broke through with a 68.57m bomb at the World Championships that won him the silver medal and gave him the confidence he would need to eventually become World and Olympic champion.

For Daniel, the breakthrough came at the 2017 Worlds, a competition that will be remembered for the size of the medalists (the smallest of the three–Andrius Gudžius–was listed at 6’6” and 300lbs) and the ferocity of the second round in which Mason Finley (6’8”, 350lbs) took the lead with a PB 68.03m, only to be knocked into second by Daniel’s 69.19m, and then into third when Gudžius hit 69.21m. There was no change in the ranking after that, and Daniel had to settle for silver.

It was a frustrating result, but also a turning point as he demonstrated a year later.

I was present for his 2018 rematch with Gudžius at the European Championships in Berlin. Daniel qualified easily with a 67.07m opener in the prelims, but found himself on the brink of disaster in the final with fouls on each of his first two attempts. 

It was a crazy night. Berlin was in the middle of a heatwave and the air was heavy with humidity. I remember that at each stop on the subway ride to the stadium, boarding passengers would exclaim “Ooof!” as they stepped into the sweltering cars. But the stadium was packed, and folks were in a raucous mood as this was Germany, this was the European Championships, and this was Robert Harting’s last appearance in the German national uniform. 

Daniel had to shut all that out–the noise, the heat, the awful prospect of fouling again–as he stepped into the ring for his third attempt. His toss of 64.20m showed that he’d come a long way since Rio, and lifted him into second place. More importantly, it earned him a full six attempts.

Gudžius responded by knocking the crap out of one. His 67.19m was an impressive toss in that heavy air and threatened to put the competition away.

It would take a hell of a lot of horsepower to launch a discus much farther in that stadium on that night, but horsepower is one thing that Daniel never lacked. His Humvee-sized body contains what Vésteinn refers to as a “Formula One” engine. In round four, he pressed the pedal to the metal and grabbed the lead with a monster throw of 68.23m.

It was a manly effort, and perhaps the farthest throw ever in an outdoor sauna. Once again though, Gudžius was able to respond. In round six, he snatched the gold with a 68.46m bomb.

I spoke with Daniel afterwards (my post about that night’s competition in Berlin is here) and asked him how he’d been able to keep his composure after opening with two fouls. 

“It was mental strength,” he replied. “I’m really happy. It was great conditions, and I’m very happy. I was focused all six throws. My goal was to win, but I’m really proud of 68.23m…Now, I prepare to win in Doha.”

And prepare he did.

Daniel came into the 2019 World Championships as the Diamond League champion and world-leader with a season’s best of 71.86m. The challenge, according to Vésteinn, was to handle the pressure of being considered the favorite. 

That he ended up winning was a testament to all the years of “traveling and learning.”

The eight-year process that Vésteinn had laid out for Daniel back in 2011 had built him into a performer of such consistency that in his top ten meets of 2019 he averaged 69.94m. So, even on a day when, as in Doha, he struggled to find his rhythm, he was hard to beat.

Last fall, I interviewed several coaches and athletes about the weather conditions at the Worlds. You can find that post here. Bottom line, the oppressive heat made for a very strange situation in Doha. In the days prior to competing, most athletes did not leave their hotel during daylight hours. Even when they ventured out to train at night, the heat quickly sapped their energy. Then, on competition days, those wishing to take early warmup throws outside the stadium (a common routine at a championship meet) had to expose themselves to the brutal heat shortly before reporting to the air-conditioned call room and then being transported into the open-air, but also air-conditioned, stadium.

It was a strange situation, and certainly not one designed to help athletes find a familiar rhythm. The men’s shot putters flourished, with Joe Kovacs, Ryan Crouser, and Tom Walsh all breaking seventy-five feet, but that might have been due to the meat-headed nature of the event. World class putters, once their technique has been fully ingrained, can operate successfully in caveman mode, which makes it easier to block out distractions. Discus throwers, on the other hand, must maintain a more delicate balance between competitive fire and long-limbed relaxation.

Whatever the reason, long throws were in short supply in the men’s disc in Doha. Daniel was the only one to reach the automatic qualifying mark in the prelims, and even though he and Fedrick Dacres had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to throw sixty-nine-meters-plus in stadiums during the 2019 season, only Daniel would break 67.00m in either the prelims or final.

He opened in the final with 66.59m, lost the lead to Austria’s Lukas Weißhaidinger who hit 66.74m, then regained it in round two with a toss of 67.18m. He improved to 67.59m in round three and reached 67.05m on his sixth attempt. Each of those three throws was long enough for the win.

Fedrick ended up taking the silver with 66.94m. Weißhaidinger finished third at 66.82m.

This year, the pandemic has delayed Daniel’s chance to fight for an Olympic medal, but he has continued to train with Vésteinn and a group that includes fellow Doha finalist Simon Pettersson and Jakob Gardenkrans. It is hard to say what the next few weeks will bring, but Vésteinn is hoping that his group will be allowed to host a couple of throwing meets beginning in May.

Beyond that?

Vésteinn puts it this way:

“When you’ve thrown the fourth farthest throw ever, and you have the second best average for ten throws ever, of course the goal is to break the world record. But, as Daniel says, it is not like ordering a pizza.”

Vésteinn also acknowledges that even freakish athletes like Daniel have a narrow window during which world-record distances are possible. By the time they gain the technical mastery and experience to get the most out of their talents, age often begins to take its toll.

 He says that if Daniel is going to take down Jürgen Schult’s record of 74.08m, it “has to be done in two years. It is prime time now, and after that it is about getting more medals.”

Hopefully, athletics fans will get a chance to see Daniel chase his massive potential later this summer.

One last note: I want to acknowledge that the 2018 European Championships in Berlin were not only Robert Harting’s final championship appearance, but Gerd Kanter’s as well. He retired shortly thereafter, one of the greatest competitors and nicest dudes ever to chuck the platter.

Free Hammer Throw Webinar with JC Lambert, Coach of DeAnna Price, Thursday May 7 12:00pm CST

DeAnna Price, American record holder, two-time national champion, and 2019 World Champion is coached by her husband, Southern Illinios University throws coach JC Lambert.

In a free webinar to be held on Thursday, May 7 at 12:00pm CST, JC will break down DeAnna’s technique using two videos: one of her 2018 American record throw of 78.12m (note: she upped that record to 78.24m in 2019) and one from her series at the 2019 World Championships.

This is a chance to gain insight into what has made DeAnna not only one of the farthest hammer throwers of all time, but also one of the greatest competitors.

Attendees will be able to submit questions throughout JC’s presentation. Register here.

An Interview with VÉSTEINN HAFSTEINSSON, Part 3: The Fight to stay on top

On Thursday, April 30th at 12:00pm CST, Coach Vésteinn Hafsteinsson of Global Throwing examined the form of World Champion discus thrower  Daniel Ståhl in a Mcthrows.com webinar.

In advance of the webinar, Vésteinn sat for a long interview about his coaching career. This post, the third derived from that interview, describes the challenges Vésteinn faced trying to keep Gerd Kanter on top of the discus world.

It’s a question few of us will ever have to answer, but what do you do once you’ve achieved your goals?

Say you’ve devoted yourself for eight years to becoming the Olympic discus champion. Your focus on that goal has determined virtually every aspect of your life. Your diet. Your daily schedule. Where you’ve lived. With whom you’ve become friends. It has required you to abjure most of the pleasures enjoyed by “normal’ people in their twenties. It has forced you to endure the kind of public humiliation unknown to those of us whose “bad days” do not take place in packed stadiums.

It would be a remarkable feeling to finally stand atop an Olympic podium with that gold medal around your neck, but what happens after the medal ceremony is over and you have to face the future without that all-encompassing objective around which to organize your life?

That was the question facing Gerd Kanter after the 2008 Olympics. He was twenty-nine years old, in fantastic shape and in need of a reset. 

So he and his coach, Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, formulated a new plan. They would make a determined assault on Jürgen Schult’s world record of 74.08m. 

One might assume that once a thrower breaks the seventy-meter barrier (as Gerd had done each year since 2005) every competition would become an assault on the world record. But it’s not so simple.

Consider Jürgen, for example. Fans of the sport will remember him as a remarkably consistent fixed-feet thrower who won Olympic and World Championship golds. But he broke the world record in 1986 on a full reverse throw, and the reason we remember him as a non-reverser is that he switched to that style afterwards, believing that it would allow him to be more consistent in major championships. And he was correct. Jürgen never again produced a seventy-four-meter throw, but he qualified for seven World and four Olympic finals. 

That’s exactly the kind of career Vésteinn imagined for Gerd, so though they spent time training in California every spring and Gerd produced some big throws in open, windy venues such as Chula Vista and Salinas, the focus always remained on preparing him to throw sixty-eight-meters-plus at major meets in large stadiums because that is what he’d have to do to become Olympic champion some day.

In the wake of Gerd’s Olympic triumph, though, they decided on a new approach. They would adjust his training with the goal of breaking the world record on their trip to California in the spring of 2009. They even had a venue picked out. Gerd especially liked the setup at Hartnell College in Salinas where he’d produced a throw of 72.02m in 2007, so that is where he’d go for the record.

As the season began, Gerd demonstrated that he was indeed in world record shape. Previously, his top season-opening throw had been 65.43m in 2007. He began his 2009 campaign with a 69.70m bomb at the European Cup Winter Throwing competition, then followed that up with an astounding 69.51m indoors in Växjö, Sweden. That throw shattered the unofficial indoor world mark of 66.20m set by Wolfgang Schmidt in 1980. 

Unfortunately, when they arrived in California that April, complications arose. In spite of its long history as the site of epic discus competitions, the throwing field at Hartnell had never been certified as a legitimate spot to set a world record, so Vésteinn paid to have it surveyed. The survey revealed that the field had too much of a slope and would not pass IAAF muster. 

Gerd threw 71.00m at a meet in Chula Vista, and 69.45m at another in San Diego, but was disappointed not to be able to take a crack at the record in Salinas, and according to Vésteinn, was “never really into” the world record chase after that.

Then, for the first time since they had teamed up in 2000, Gerd began to question the way Vésteinn was training him.

Conflict between strong willed coaches and their athletes is as old as sport itself, and the throwing world has not been immune. Robert Harting and David Storl both eventually rebelled against the mentors who guided them to World and Olympic medals, and it may just be that a decade of having a certain coach control your life is all an athlete can bear.

Whatever the cause, the relationship between Gerd and Vésteinn became strained.

“We had argued about the volume of throwing,” Vésteinn recalls. “When you get to be twenty-nine or thirty years old, you have  to throw less to stay healthy, but Gerd always wanted more and more and more.”

Despite the tension between them, Gerd put together a sensational season. He hit seventy-one meters again in June, and came into the Berlin World Championships in fantastic shape.

Hosts of major championships must provide a throwing area outside of the stadium for athletes to take early warmup throws. In Berlin, there is a park with a discus/hammer cage about a half mile from the Olympic stadium. There, an hour or so before the discus final, Gerd took six full throws–his normal routine at Championship meets. Vésteinn says that he did not realize the distance of Gerd’s throws until Jürgen Schult, now a coach for the German national team, approached and asked, “Why are you letting him throw so far?” 

Upon closer inspection, Vésteinn saw that each of Gerd’s warmup tosses had travelled at least seventy-two meters. The farthest was 72.80m. Clearly, he was in great physical shape to defend the title he’d won in Osaka.

But Vésteinn was concerned about Gerd’s mental state going into the competition. During their final conversation before the athletes were transported into the stadium, Vésteinn warned Gerd to expect that Robert Harting would throw sixty-nine meters that night, and that he would do so in the early rounds. “I told him it doesn’t matter, you just throw 71.50m, but he laughed and said, ‘No way will Harting do that!’”

Vésteinn was wrong about one thing. Harting did not throw sixty-nine meters early. It was not until his final attempt that he blasted a 69.43m PB to take the lead from Piotr Malachowski, who had set a new Polish national record with a toss of 69.15m in round five. Gerd finished third with a best of 66.88m.

It was one of the most dramatic and memorable performances in the history of the sport, and it came close to ending Vésteinn’s partnership with Gerd.

Vésteinn had seen too much as an athlete and coach to have started counting chickens based on Gerd’s performance in warmups, but he knew what Gerd was capable of that night and it was not easy watching a shirtless Harting romp around the track when he believed that Gerd might easily have won with better mental focus.

After the Berlin debacle, Vésteinn wondered if his relationship with Gerd was beyond repair. He considered quitting as Gerd’s coach, but changed his mind. The strain continued throughout the 2010 season, the first since 2004 during which Gerd did not win a medal in a major championship (he took fourth at the Euros that year).

Finally, in the spring of 2011, Gerd, in Vésteinn’s words, “came back to me mentally.” His season’s best of 67.99m would be his lowest since 2003, and he could not keep Harting from claiming another World title, but Gerd added a World Championship silver to his growing medal collection.

Vésteinn felt that they were totally in sync throughout the 2012 season, one of the most satisfying of Gerd’s career. Once again, he failed to dent the seventy-meter mark, but he took silver at the Euros and his season’s best of 68.03m came when he needed it the most–in round five of the Olympic final.

As in Berlin, Gerd ended up with the bronze (Harting won with 68.27m, followed by Ehsan Hadadi at 68.18m), but this time it felt like a triumph. Through all their years together, all the miles travelled, all the achievements and all the disappointments, the ultimate goal was to forge Gerd into the kind of thrower who could produce his best effort under the greatest pressure, and that is exactly what he did in London, where he was the only discus finalist to produce a season’t best.

“That,” says Vésteinn, “was a really high-ranking medal for me.”

It was the last they’d earn together. 

Gerd wasn’t finished quite yet. He’d make the podium in three more major championship meets before retiring in 2018, but after the London Games, he and Vésteinn ended their partnership.

Together they’d won medals in four World Championships, two European Championships, and two Olympic Games.

Just as importantly, they’d given the people of Estonia the hero they were looking for. 

Reflecting back on his time with Gerd, Vésteinn took a moment to philosophize.

“We are getting money for throwing a plate,” he said. “People get crazy about that, and it seems kind of stupid, but it is a symbol of making people feel good. Sports results are the easiest way to make a group of people, a whole nation, feel good for a short period of time. And that’s what we accomplished.”

Next: Vésteinn climbs the mountain again.

AN INTERVIEW WITH VÉSTEINN HAFSTEINSSON, PART 2: ascending the summit

On Thursday, April 30th, Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, one of the most accomplished throws coaches in the world, examined the technique of World Champion discus thrower Daniel Ståhl in a Mcthrows.com webinar. In advance of his appearance on the webinar, Vésteinn was gracious enough to sit for an interview about his experiences as a coach at the highest level of the sport. In this, the second post based on that interview, he describes Gerd Kanter’s journey to Olympic gold.

On a summer day in the year 2000, the sports journalist Raul Rebane was walking down the street in Tallinn, Estonia when he spotted a large young man with a sad look on his face. Always on the hunt for promising athletes, Rebane struck up a conversation with the young man and invited him to sit and have a cup of coffee. 

The sad look, he came to learn, was the result of the young man having been refused admission to a sports school where he had hoped to develop his skills as a basketball player. Rebane asked him whether he participated in any other sports.

“Yes,” came the reply. “I throw a little discus, but nobody wants to coach me because I’m not good enough.”

The two parted ways, but there was something about this large lad that stuck with the journalist, and later that summer when he was in Sydney covering the Olympic Games, Rebane decided to find him a discus coach. At some point, he found himself seated next to a couple of commentators from Iceland and asked their advice.

They recommended he contact  Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, the Icelandic discus record holder now living and coaching in Sweden. Rebane took their advice, and a few weeks later, Vésteinn stepped from a car in Tallinn and found himself face to face with Gerd Kanter.

“Gerd walks towards me,” Vésteinn recalled recently,” with his eyes popping out of his head and his hand stuck out ready to shake mine. In his face, his eyes, I saw his passion. I saw the will to do the work.”

They joined forces, and set about climbing the discus summit. Their early years together produced great results and great disappointment.

In 2002, Gerd proved himself a world class athlete with a season’s best throw of 66.31m. Just as promising was the fact that he tossed 63.61m on his first attempt in the preliminary round at the European Championships that August. Advancing to the final in his first major competition was a significant accomplishment. Unfortunately, Gerd ended up finishing twelfth with a best throw of 55.14m.

This established a pattern that Gerd fell into over the next couple of years. His PB kept going up, but his performance at the biggest competitions remained dismal.

In 2003, he raised his PB to 67.13m, but finished twenty-fifth at the World Championships with a throw of 56.63m.

In June of 2004, he smashed still another PB of 68.50m at a meet in Spain, but later that summer threw 60.05m to finish nineteenth at the Athens Olympics.

Those were miserable moments, made worse by the attention lavished on Gerd by an Estonian public desperate for the emergence of a sports hero in the years following their liberation from the Soviet Bloc. 

 Vésteinn says that because Raul was a television journalist, Gerd received constant coverage. On one of his early visits to Estonia, Vésteinn was asked in a televised interview to assess Gerd’s potential. “I wouldn’t be here,” he replied, “if I did not think he would be the best in the world some day.”

He also told people that it might take eight years of training before Gerd would be ready to contend for a gold medal, but that seemed to have gotten lost in translation. After Gerd’s disappointing finishes at the 2003 Worlds and 2004 Olympics, it appeared to Vésteinn that all of Estonia was “freaking out,” so he took a moment during another interview to set things straight. 

“Hey, you Estonians,” he remembers leaning into the camera and saying, “do not think negative about Gerd. He is going to do really well, so think positive! Bye bye.”

Vésteinn knew that the ability to perform well in big meets was not easily acquired. During his own ten-year career as a professional discus thrower, he had competed in five World Championships and four Olympic Games, but often failed to produce throws at or near his PB when he needed them the most.

Looking back, Vésteinn says that he was able to draw on his experiences to help Gerd through this difficult phase. “It was very good for me to be me at the time,” he says. “I had been in this situation myself, so I could help him out.”

Vésteinn believed that the best way for Gerd to acquire the skill of throwing his best when it counted the most was for him to compete as often as possible in as many places as possible. 

“I went out and took every meet we could get,” he recalls. “We’d go to Belgium, to Holland, to Finland…everywhere! We’d miss planes, miss trains, get delayed at airports, go through all kinds of problems just to learn to travel. We’d foul out at meets…all those experiences are necessary to be a champion. You have to travel. You have to be in the game, compete against the best. You can’t just throw in California or Iceland in good winds, then go to the World Championships and throw well. You must learn to compete.”

In order for Gerd to contend for a World or Olympic gold medal, he had to be able to throw at least sixty-eight meters under pressure in big stadiums. That is what the throwers he was trying to overtake, people like Virgilius Alekna and Lars Reidel could do, seemingly at will.

The breakthrough for Gerd came in 2005, when he upped his PB to 70.10m at an April meet in Chula Vista, then hit 68.57m at the World Championships that August. Alekna took the gold with a sixth-round bomb of 70.17m, but Gerd was clearly no longer intimidated by the challenge of performing on the big stage.

Alekna held back the tide for one more year, defeating Gerd at the 2006 Euros 68.67m to 68.03m, but finally succumbed at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka as Gerd unleashed a monster toss of 68.94m to take his first gold at a major championship. A young Robert Harting finished second that night with a throw of 66.68m. The veteran Rutger Smith took the bronze at 66.42m, while Alekna–hobbled by injury–came in fourth with 65.24m.

Vésteinn says that his main goal when he became a coach was to train an Olympic discus champion.“I wanted to do that because I didn’t succeed on the big scene as a thrower, and I was curious to know how to do this. How do you win an Olympic gold?”

In 2008, he found out as Gerd triumphed in Beijing with another big meet/big stadium throw beyond sixty-eight meters. His best of 68.82m gave him a comfortable margin over Poland’s Piotr Malachowski (67.82m) and the ageless Alekna (67.79m).

So, after eight years, the mission was complete. Vésteinn recalls that as the competition ended he teared up thinking back on “all the lifts, all the throws, all the mistakes.” 

“Then, when everything is over, you feel emptiness and wonder, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

Next: Vésteinn and Gerd hit a rough patch. Daniel Ståhl hits his stride.

An Interview With Vésteinn Hafsteinsson. Part 1: From Athlete to coach

On Thursday, April 30th , Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, one of the most accomplished throws coaches in the world, examined the technique of World Champion discus thrower Daniel Ståhl in a Mcthrows.com webinar. In advance of his appearance on the webinar, Vésteinn was gracious enough to sit for an interview about his experiences as a coach at the highest level of the sport. This is the first of four posts based on that interview.

It is impossible these days to follow college football without being exposed each fall to the sight and sound of thousands of red clad drunks fervently chanting “Roll Tide Roll” as their gridiron heroes do just that, but I honestly never thought I’d hear those words uttered by a proud son of Iceland who lives in Sweden and has coached an Estonian to an Olympic discus title.

And yet, two minutes into my conversation with Vésteinn Hafsteinsson–coach of discus greats Gerd Kanter and Daniel Ståhl along with many other world class throwers–there it was. “Roll Tide Roll!”

He had no choice, really. I’d done some research on Vésteinn prior to our call, and when I discovered that he had attended the University of Alabama during the 1980’s I alerted my wife. She’d spent a year at ‘Bama around the same time, and you don’t run into many Crimson Tide fans in the suburbs of Chicago where we live, so as soon as Vésteinn’s face popped up on my screen she leaned in and began bonding with him over their shared admiration of Paul “Bear” Bryant.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, I felt more than a little vexed by this, but I recovered quickly as Vésteinn began graciously sharing his experiences as one of the most successful throws coaches ever.

It turns out that there were a dozen Icelanders on the Alabama track team in the early 1980’s, including Vésteinn’s older brother. The first to make the move to Tuscaloosa was Hreinn Halldórsson, a twenty-one-meter shot putter who Vésteinn remembers as a “thirty-two-year-old freshmen.” 

“He is the reason they changed the rules about age in the NCAA,” recalled Vésteinn, who has fond memories of his ‘Bama days. “It was a culture shock,” he says now, “but we had a little Icelandic colony and it was a great school, a great campus.”

Vésteinn met his wife–a Swedish citizen–while at Alabama, and they settled in Sweden in 1986 as he embarked on a ten-year career as professional discus thrower. 

Vésteinn describes himself as an “okay” discus thrower who competed in many Grand Prix 1 and Grand Prix 2 meets as well as four Olympics and five World Championships. He estimates that he averaged around 59.50m-61.50m throwing in stadiums. 

Vésteinn regularly competed against the likes of Jürgen Schult, Wolfgang Schmidt, and Lars Reidel, and treasures the memory of facing–and defeating–Al Oerter twice. 

He often struggled, though, to throw his best in the biggest meets and though he surpassed the sixty-five-meter mark many times during his career with a PB of 67.64m in 1989, his best finish in an Olympics or World Championships was eleventh in the Barcelona Games.

“I was a good thrower when it came to throwing far,” he says now, “but I was not a very good performer at the most important competitions.”

That eleventh-place finish in Barcelona still rankles him, as Cuba’s Roberto Moya took the bronze medal with a rather pedestrian 64.12m. Anything close to his PB would have put him in contention for a medal, but Vésteinn’s best throw in the final was 60.06m.

Looking back, Vésteinn attributes his difficulties at the Olympics and Worlds to a lack of confidence. “I came from a very small country with no tradition of winning any medals. People in Iceland never really expect to win anything. In America, winning is everything. You don’t celebrate a silver or bronze medal. It was different in Iceland. I trained hard and I was pretty good, but I never believed I would get a medal.”

After competing at the 1996 Olympics, Vésteinn decided that it was time to move on to a new career. Inspired by the memory of two youth coaches who’d had a huge impact on him (“They were my idols,” he says) and determined to pursue the Olympic success that eluded him as an athlete, he found work as a personal trainer and began coaching a young Icelandic discus thrower named Magnús Hallgrímsson. 

Under Vésteinn’s tutelage, Hallgrímsson achieved a PB of 63.09m and qualified for the 2000 Olympics, but his career was derailed by injuries. “I did a lot of mistakes with him,” Vésteinn says looking back. “He should have broken my Icelandic record, but I coached him way too hard.”

Vowing not to repeat those mistakes, Vésteinn hoped that Fate would bring him an athlete he could mold into an Olympic medal contender.

Fate complied on November 1st, 2000, when out of the blue he received a phone call from an Estonian sports journalist named Raul Rebane. 

“You don’t know who I am,” Raul told him, “but I think I have someone for you. A young man with big hands!”

The young man’s name was Gerd Kanter, and meeting him would change the course of Vésteinn’s life.

Next: Vésteinn and Gerd Kanter conquer the discus world.

by Dan McQuaid & friends