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.
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.