Category Archives: Interviews

A Look Back at Indoor Worlds with Josh Awotunde

This past weekend, shot putter Josh Awotunde opened his outdoor season with a solid 21.63m toss to take second place behind Darrell Hill at the Mt. SAC relays. Seeing Josh back in action reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a conversation I had with him following his stellar performance at the Indoor World Championships in March, so here goes.

Even for throwers who have thrived at high stakes comps like the NCAA Championships or Olympic Trials, a World Championships or Olympic Games presents a special set of challenges. This is especially true for an athlete competing at an international championships for the first time. That was the case with Josh at Indoor Worlds, but he somehow managed to finish fifth in a loaded field where it took 22.31m to get on the awards stand. A few days afterwards, he was kind enough to explain how he did it.

The first thing that Josh had to figure out after qualifying for the Indoor Worlds squad with a toss of 21.74m at the USATF Championships in Spokane in February, was how to manage the travel from his home in South Carolina to Belgrade,Serbia–site of the Indoor Worlds–with as little disruption to his normal training schedule as possible.

Josh trains at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, with Mike Sergent, his college  coach, and he normally throws three sessions per week, two a little easier and one with high intensity. Mondays he focuses on technique, Wednesdays on rhythm, and Fridays on distance. 

As it turned out, that schedule matched up well with the demands of traveling to Belgrade for a Saturday competition. Josh was able to do his normal technique day at home that Monday, travel on Tuesday, do his rhythm session while recovering from the flight on Wednesday, then delay his Friday distance session to Saturday, where instead of throwing full out in a practice, he’d be doing so in the actual competition.

Josh’s ability to maintain a fairly normal routine made it a lot easier to feel comfortable that week in spite of the rigors of travel and the inevitable jet lag. 

The next challenge Josh had to navigate involved implements.

At the Indoor Worlds (and at all indoor meets in Europe), the putters actually use the outdoor shot. That would not generally pose a problem for someone who trains in South Carolina where the weather is conducive to throwing outdoors during the winter months. It’s not like Josh had to scramble to find somewhere to throw the outdoor implement during the three weeks between the US and World Championships. But at competitions like the Indoor Worlds there is a catch–the meet organizers provide the implements. 

A putter is allowed to throw his or her own shot only if it is of a brand that the organizers do not provide, and I’m told that this is rarely the case. 

No big deal, right? Shots are shots. But the implements provided to the athletes are typically brand new with their nice, slick coat of paint unblemished by wear. And having, in the middle of the biggest competition of your life, to figure out how to get comfortable gripping an implement with an odd feel to it is no easy task. Can you imagine someone handing Tiger Woods a brand new driver as he walked to the first tee at the Masters and telling him he was required to use that club? Me either. Luckily, Josh kept his cool and was able to manage with the shot they provided.

Another tricky aspect of competing at meets like Indoor Worlds is the pre-competition procedure, which tends to be quite different from that followed at other meets. At the USATF Indoor Championships, for example, the putters were taken to the competition ring about thirty minutes before the action started. I was there in the arena watching, and I made note of the number of  throws guys like Josh, Ryan Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill took prior to the comp. Most got in eight. Then, after a pause of maybe ten minutes for introductions, round one commenced. 

The situation at Indoor Worlds was very different. According to Josh, on the night of the men’s shot comp, the putters were given an hour to take throws at a ring away from the main venue. They were then deposited in a call room where they sat for thirty or forty minutes. After that,  they were taken into the oval where each thrower was allowed no more than three warmup throws in the competition ring. Then, there was a ten-minute delay for introductions. All this stopping and starting can make it difficult to find your rhythm. If you need eight throws to feel ready, you obviously have to take several during the early warmup period. But then you’d be sitting around for at least half an hour before completing your throws. And if you start burning energy two hours prior to the comp, you might run out of gas when the throws actually count. 

Luckily for Josh, Ryan Crouser was also throwing in Belgrade and he’d been through this drill many times. After talking to Ryan, Josh decided not to take any throws in the early warmup period, and to make due with the three he’d get in the competition ring.

“It was the fewest warmup throws I’ve ever had for a meet,” he says, “so I went straight to fulls.”

This is something I saw Val Allman experiment with at the US Outdoor Championships in Des Moines in 2019. Her flight of the women’s discus was given an extremely long warmup period, something like forty minutes, but Val just sat back and relaxed for most of it. Then, a few minutes before the competition began, she stepped in and took two full throws. Afterwards, she explained that this was a routine she’d developed to prepare for championship meets where you can’t count on more than a couple warmup attempts. 

The Indoor Worlds was Josh’s first experience with that approach to warming up, but he went in knowing what to expect and didn’t let the relative strangeness of it bother him.

Which was a good thing, since the odd rhythm of competing at Indoor Worlds did not end once the comp began. There were eighteen men’s putters in Belgrade, and they were all lumped into one flight. For Josh, who was twelfth in the order, that meant a thirty-minute delay between his final warmup throw and first competition throw, and an unusually long wait between attempts during the first three rounds due to the size of the field. Luckily, Josh was prepared for this as well.

He explained that, “During the competition I’d relax until there were six throws left before I was up, then I’d do some drills. When I was three throws away, I’d take off my warmups and tell myself, ‘Allright, it is time to go!’”

The plan allowed Josh to keep his chill, avoid the dreaded opening-round foul (he opened with 20.74m and followed that with 21.41m), and nearly equal his indoor PB with that 21.70m in round three.

That put him in fourth, well behind Darlan Romani (22.53m), Crouser (22.44m) and Tom Walsh (22.29m) but safely in the final. At that point, most observers–myself included–probably thought, “Okay, Josh, good job. Now you can relax, because there is no way you are breaking into that top three.”

But, that’s not what Josh was thinking, and his attitude may explain why–in addition to his considerable talent and the friendly advice from Crouser that helped him prepare–he was able to throw so well in his first Worlds. As the final three rounds began and the rest of the shot putting community was getting ready to enjoy a fight to the finish between Romani, Crouser, and Walsh, Josh was sitting there thinking, “I could win this.”

“I haven’t seen any throws over 22.50m in practice,” he recounted later, “but I watched Auriol Dongmo win on her last throw in the women’s comp, and my motto in practice has always been ‘last throw/best throw’, so I tried to get as pumped up as I could and just see what would happen.”

He fouled his fourth and fifth attempts, then entered the ring for his final throw “pissed off” and determined to unleash a big one.

“I tried to speed up out of the back a little bit. Of course, I have to be patient with my upper body at the start and the initial movement out to ninety degrees has to be easy, but once I move out wide around my left and get into position, it is time to go.”

The result was a throw that landed past the twenty-two meter line, but…was called a foul by an official who determined that Josh had just barely stepped on the ring to the right of the toeboard on his reverse.

Josh immediately protested, and the ever-helpful Crouser stepped up and reminded him to walk out the back of the ring, so they couldn’t nick him on that. 

Unfortunately, there was no video available from an angle that would have provided a clear view of the spot where Josh might have fouled, so his protest was disallowed.

Most would agree that fifth place at your first World Championships is a successful outing for an up-and-coming thrower, but Josh’s takeaway was that he should have thrown farther.

Of the big foul, he says that “the finish was too short and quick. I did a lot of non-reverse throws in practice getting ready for the Worlds, and that usually helps me, but now I think I should have focused more on my reverse a couple of days before the comp. My reverse in the meet ended up being super quick and short, so I didn’t get everything out of the finish. When I’m at my best, I’m out over the toeboard, but in Belgrade it looked like I was doing a discus reverse. If I had really extended over the toeboard, that last throw would have been crazy.”

With guys like Romani, Walsh, Crouser, Hill, Joe Kovacs, and Zane Weir (who had a huge foul of his own in Belgrade–reportedly in the 22.70m range) lining up to do battle at this summer’s Outdoor Worlds, shot put fans can expect a lot of crazy in the near future.

And with the experience he gained in Serbia combined with his phenomenal physical talent, it will be no surprise to see Josh battling for a spot on the podium again in July.

Reflections on the Men’s Shot Put Comp at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships

The Slow Squeeze

I’ve never wrestled an anaconda, but I imagine it’s similar to competing against Ryan Crouser–you go in with very little chance of winning and come out feeling thoroughly pulverized.

And like an anaconda, Crouser takes his time pulping you. With Ryan, it is a very deliberate process that begins during warmups. At the recent USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane, he started with an easy, walking stand throw, followed by a regular non-reverse stand and a half-speed, non-reverse full that plopped down on the twenty-meter line.

He began his next full with a static start, and dropped that one around twenty-one meters. Another full from a static start went 21.50m. He used a longer windup only on his final two warmups. One reached 21.75m, the other 22.00m.

Notice a pattern there? We’ve all seen throwers blast away during warmups, desperate to build confidence by launching bombs. As Olympic champion (twice) and current world record holder, Crouser is long past the confidence-building stage, so he uses warmups to…warm up. In Spokane, he slowly and precisely increased the amount of effort he put into each attempt, staying under control and refusing to be rushed. He seemed assured that the big throws would come if he just maintained his rhythm, and he was right.

Throwing last in the order, Crouser began applying the death squeeze with a toss of 22.03m from a static start. He missfired on his second attempt and walked out the front. Then, sticking with the static start in round three, he went 22.34m, to essentially put the top spot out of reach.

Those, by the way, were the164th and 165th throws over twenty-two meters in Ryan’s career. To put that in perspective, John Godina, a four-time World Champion and the best putter in the business from 1995 to 2005, threw twenty-two meters exactly three times. Ever.

Oh, and Crouser is not yet thirty years old.

One might think that the folks running the meet there in Spokane would have made it a priority to keep the momentum rolling considering they had the world record holder putting on a show center stage, but alas, other, inexplicable considerations took precedence and the shot comp was paused for fifteen minutes.

When festivities resumed, Crouser set about asphyxiating any remaining hopes of an upset.

He later said that after his first three attempts he decided to stop “dancing around” and so began using his full windup. The result was a 22.51m toss, the fifth time in his career that he surpassed seventy-three feet.

He followed that up with 23.39m and a foul.

When it was over, one question remained. Even in this current Golden Age of shot putting, with its proliferation of twenty-two-meter throwers, can Crouser, barring injury, be beaten?

What if, for example, a competitor dropped a monster throw early, and instead of leading by half-a-meter or more from the get go, Crouser had to play catch up? Would that knock him off his game?

Well, at the 2019 Worlds, you may recall that Tom Walsh opened with a meeting record 22.90m, which Joe Kovacs surpassed by a centimeter in round six. Minutes later, Crouser stepped in for his final attempt. The result? A 22.90m PB.

He didn’t win that night, but he showed that he can take a punch and not get rattled.

And he is a significantly better and more consistent shot putter now than he was three years ago in Doha.

Walsh and Kovacs will no doubt be in Eugene this summer for a Worlds rematch. Walsh has reportedly separated from his longtime coach, Dale Stevenson, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his season. Joe, has been holed up in Nashville (his wife and coach, Ashley, works at Vanderbilt), apparently plotting his title defense…

Maggie Ewen, certainly an astute judge of throwing potential, told me back in 2019 that Darrell Hill (more about him below) has as much talent as Crouser or Kovacs. After a difficult, injury-plagued 2021 season, can he get it together and challenge Crouser? Can any of these guys?

Time will tell, but one thing is for sure. There has never been a better moment to be a shot put fan.

Confidence Men

If you are looking for a doable challenge, I’d recommend trying something easy like becoming an astronaut or breaking the world hotdog eating record (seventy-six in ten minutes) before taking a whack at making a US Olympic or Worlds team in the men’s shot.

Right now, nine of the top twenty male putters in the World Athletics rankings throw for the United States, and that does not include defending World Champion and Olympic silver medalist Joe Kovacs, who has yet to compete this season.

Even with the United States likely to be granted four spots in the men’s shot at the 2022 Worlds, at least six of the planet’s best putters who happen to be American will be stuck watching from home when the new World shot put champion is crowned on July 17th.

A quick word on the number of entries for Worlds. In individual events, a nation is allowed to send three athletes who have met the World Athletics entry standards–four if an athlete from that country has received a bye. The defending World champion gets one. That’s Joe. The current Diamond League champion gets one. That’s Crouser. However, even with both of those guys receiving byes, no country can send more than four competitors in an individual event, so the US Championships will basically come down to a battle for the remaining two spots. If somehow Joe or Crouser were to finish out of the top four at those Championships, then…I don’t know what the hell happens because the USATF places a premium on order of finish at the National Championships in selecting the team. Stay tuned.

However you slice it, making the Worlds team for the US will be at least seventy-seven hotdogs hard, which is why few would blame Josh Awotunde for taking advantage of his dual citizenship (US/Nigeria) to avoid the process altogether–especially after a PB toss of 21.84m at last summer’s Olympic Trials left him in fifth place and off the squad for Tokyo.

But, speaking a few days prior to the US indoor Championships last month, Josh said he was determined to represent the US on the world stage.

He called the idea of making the team for Indoor Worlds a “dream come true” and added that he wanted nothing more than to compete in an Olympics or Worlds wearing the “red white and blue.”

He made that dream a reality in Spokane by dropping an indoor PB of 21.74m in round two. That throw held up for second place, and a similar toss in Belgrade might put him in line for his first World Championship medal.

Roger Steen finished four places behind Josh at the Trials, despite producing a PB of 20.41m. Considering that he was twenty-nine years old and finished the season ranked number fifty-two by World Athletics (with sixteen Americans rated ahead of him) the sensible move after last summer would probably have been to take a bow, call it a career, and walk away satisfied with the fact that it was a huge accomplishment for a former DIII athlete to place in the top ten at one of the greatest shot put competitions ever.

But Roger chose to soldier on, and for five rounds in Spokane (19.55m, two fouls around 20.00m, 20.04m, 20.33m) it seemed not to have been such a good decision. He resembled a stubby Don Quixote tilting at windmill-sized competitors like Crouser, Payton Otterdahl, and Darrell Hill.

Then, on his final attempt, Roger Steen, former University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire “Blugold” (don’t ask), joined the world of bigtime shot putters with his first ever twenty-one meter toss.

That throw–21.07m to be exact–didn’t get him on the squad for Indoor Worlds (he finished third in Spokane, and only the top two make the team), and he’ll have to add nearly a meter to it at the Outdoor Championships to give himself a chance to make the podium there, but…Roger Steen believes. When asked after the comp how he plans to get in the mix outdoors, he replied that he just needs to “keep doing what we’re doing.”

Windmills, beware.

Fair is Foul

The rotational technique has revolutionized shot putting, and also made life more complicated for officials. When a glider reverses at the end of a throw, they generally land with their right foot flat on the ground against the toeboard. If they foul, it is usually because they lose their balance and have to step over the toeboard and out of the ring to regain it. Easy to see and easy to call. Rotational putters, on the other hand, typically land high on the ball of the right foot after reversing, then hop around a bit as they struggle to manage the rotational forces they’ve created. As they do, it is not uncommon for the bottom the their right foot to make contact with the toeboard. As long as their foot touches only the side and not the top of the toeboard, a foul should not be called.

Easy to explain, but difficult to discern in real time with the naked eye. And every once in a while, an official–perhaps struggling with the pressure to make an accurate call–will start assessing fouls that appear to exist only in their imagination.

Tom Walsh’s experience during the qualification round in Tokyo comes to mind. The official watching the toeboard flagged him on two of his three attempts, though he clearly had not fouled. Fortunately, throwers are allowed to protest questionable calls, and Tom’s third throw was declared legal after video review. That toss got him into the final, where he finished with the bronze medal.

Darrell Hill had a similar experience in Spokane, minus the happy ending. After finishing fourth at the Trials last summer, he came into Spokane on Sunday looking to re-establish himself as a top contender for Eugene 2022 as Maggie Ewen and Chase Ealey had done in the women’s shot the previous day.

And he looked strong during the first three rounds, approaching twenty-two meters on his second attempt.

Unfortunately, all three of Darrell’s efforts were deemed fouls, with the official apparently dinging him for touching the top of the toeboard with his heel.

Darrell protested after his third throw, but the officials had trouble getting the replay to function.

In the meantime, they granted him an additional attempt, which was measured as 20.93m. Had it counted, that throw would have allowed Darrell to continue in rounds four, five, and six, but a moment later an official informed him that they were finally able to examine the replay of his third attempt and that the foul call would stand.

That had to be extremely disappointing for Darrell, but one thing he can take away from the experience is that he is in twenty-two meter form with several months of training still ahead before the Outdoor Nationals.

I remember covering the Prefontaine Classic in June of 2019, and watching Joe Kovacs launch twenty-two meter throws in warmups (Joe takes a very different approach to warming up than does Crouser).His best toss in the competition was 21.39m, but he told me afterwards that he was encouraged by the capacity he showed in being able to move the ball far with the Doha Worlds still months away.

Things turned out pretty well for Joe that year, and they just might for Darrell this time around.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: jessica Ramsey

Take my advice and do not look away when Jessica Ramsey steps into the shot put ring. I speak from from personal experience regarding this matter.

I showed up to cover the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines four years ago, certain that the women’s shot competition would come down to a battle between Maggie Ewen, Raven Saunders, and Michelle Carter, so when Ramsey stepped in to take her first toss, I was paying absolutely no attention. I can’t recall now if I was playing on my phone or looking around and trying to determine my odds of making it to the bratwurst stand and back before the comp really got rolling, but next thing I knew, “19.23m” appeared on the scoreboard and I had absolutely no idea who had thrown it.

Turns out it was Ramsey.

She ended up finishing second to Ewen that day, which was pretty remarkable considering Ramsey’s season’s best in 2017 had been all of 17.76m.

After the meet, I found out what the deal was. Following a very successful career at Western Kentucky during which she won Sun Belt Conference titles in the shot, disc, and hammer, Ramsey had found her way to John Smith’s throwing group, which is based at the University of Mississippi. She continued to throw the hammer and shot under Smith’s guidance–in fact, the day before her 19.23m toss in Des Moines she finished fifth in the hammer with a mark of 70.41m–but Smith could see that her future lay in the shot…provided she would agree to switch from the glide to rotational technique.

It took a while for Jessica to get completely on board with that plan, and for a couple of years she switched back and forth between the two styles of throwing. Sometime in 2018, she decided to fully embrace her rotational potential, and the result was that lightning strike in Des Moines.

She regressed slightly in 2019, producing a season’s best of 19.01m, and then came Covid.

Prevented from training at the university due to the lockdown, Smith improvised by setting up a facility outside of town that he named “the Barn.” He and Ramsey and the hammer thrower Janeah Stewart spent the next few months training at the Barn, determined to be ready when the season resumed.

It turned out there were not a lot of opportunities to compete that summer, but a 19.50m toss indoors in February of 2021 showed that the time at the Barn had been well spent.

Still, was anybody–aside from Smith–expecting the 20.12m Olympic Trials record she unleashed in Eugene last summer?

Anyhow, I’d recommend paying attention when the women’s shot gets going at 2:35 Pacific time this Saturday.

Jessica’s best toss so far this year came two weeks ago in Nashville where she hit 18.83m, but Smith says she’s close to making bigger throws. When I spoke to him last week, he reported that Jessica had recently achieved four or five training PR’s, and estimated that she’d have the “ability” to throw well over nineteen meters in Spokane.

And though it is early in the season, and her best throws will certainly come this summer, Smith says, “We take every opportunity for a national title seriously.”

Ramsey says that it would “mean a lot” to make her first Indoor Worlds team. She has been maintaining her normal hectic schedule since last summer, training, working at Insomnia Cookies, volunteering at Court Appointed Special Advocates–an organization devoted to helping abused or neglected children–and even doing a bit of coaching at a local high school where she sometimes trains.

She says she’d like to compete for another ten years, and then maybe go into social work full time.

This weekend, she’s likely in for a tough battle with Ewen and Chase Ealey for a spot in the top two and a trip to the Indoor Worlds. But she feels ready.

“I don’t try to put pressure on myself,” she explained. “I try to have fun and always give one thousand percent.”

That approach has led to some pretty amazing performances in the past, and if she produces another one this weekend, I for one, will be paying attention.

 

2022 USATF indoor Champs Preview: Janeah Stewart

If you happen to walk through the fieldhouse at the University of Mississippi one day and come across this scene…

…do not be alarmed. The Ole Miss football team has not begun recruiting infants. As far as I know. Although, one more loss to Alabama and…never mind.

Anyway, that child is unlikely to ever to set foot on the gridiron, so all you football recruiters…stand down. If you coach at a major track program, however, you might want to grab a letter of intent and a couple of crayons and head to Oxford, Mississippi, immediately because if genetics mean anything, that young lady has serious potential.

Her name is Ja’Myri, and her mother is 2018 NCAA hammer champion Janeah Stewart.

This weekend in Spokane, Janeah will be looking for her third USATF Indoor title in the weight, her first since giving birth to Ja’Myri last April.

It has been a long and difficult path from that NCAA hammer title, which she won with a throw of 72.92m, to these 2022 USATF Indoor Championships, where she is seeded third in the weight with a season’s best throw of 23.98m.

After graduating from Ole Miss, Janeah stuck around Oxford to train with her college throws coach John Smith, and in 2019 raised her hammer PB to 75.43m. That December, she launched the weight 25.08m, and was preparing to defend her national title when Covid put a halt to the season.

Smith’s entire throws crew, the college kids along with Janeah and shot putter Jessica Ramsey, were suddenly left with no place to train. But if you know Coach Smith, you will not be surprised to hear that he did not go home to sit on the couch and wait for better times.

“I spent three days driving all over the place, trying to find a place to train,” he recalled recently. “Then I found out that the people who sold us our house also owned a piece of land about ten miles outside of town.”

Smith describes the place as a “semi-abandoned” sportsplex, which the owners were happy to let him use. Exploring it, he found a large pavillion with a concrete floor that was “perfect for throwing.”

Covid regulations forbid him from working with the college athletes, but he installed throwing rings for Stewart and Ramsey and got to work.

They spent the next several months banging away at this ersatz facility that Smith refers to as “the Barn,” and he credits Ramsey’s 20.12m bomb at the 2021 Olympic Trials to the work they accomplished there in 2020.

Janeah appeared to be on her way to a similar breakthrough with the hammer. According to Smith, she hit thirty-two training PB’s at the Barn, including a seventy-seven meter toss with the competition implement.

Stewart remembers the excitement of throwing “really well” there, and it would be the memory of those throws and the feeling of being on the brink of a potentially great career that would carry her through when life got even more complicated.

First, she contracted the virus late in July of 2020. That cost her a month of training. Not long after, she realized she was pregnant. She did not lift or throw again for a year.

Smith says that in his experience very few throwers are able to return to the sport after giving birth. “I’d estimate the odds were about eighty-percent against Janeah coming back,” he says now.

It is not hard to understand why. Making a living as a hammer thrower is a dicey proposition even if you are only trying to support yourself. You have to be among the absolute best in the world to earn any prize money, and making it to that level requires an almost narcissistic level of focus on your training, recovery, and diet.

Anyone who has raised a child can tell you that selfish habits, things like sleeping eight consecutive hours or eating with both hands, go out the window as soon as you bring your baby home.

But Janeah was determined to make a go of it. She returned to lifting last summer and remembers being “in pain and out of breath.” Her first day back throwing, she told Smith she’d hit 200 feet, but could barely break 160.

But, according to Smith, Janeah can be stubborn, and whenever anyone suggested that she bag it, she’d get “pissed off” and train even harder.

It helped that Smith, his wife Connie (the head track coach at Ole Miss) and the rest of their throwing group rallied around Janeah and Ja’Myri.

Janeah says that Ja’Myri attends nearly every throwing and lifting session. She generally watches contentedly from her walker, but recently has gotten so active that Stewart has had to surround her with football dummies as shown in the photo, or she’d be “all over the place.”

Though encouraged by her 23.98m toss from earlier this month, Janeah says she is struggling to find her timing in the throw. She is also still fighting to regain her strength in the weight room. Her power clean PB in the Barn days was around 280 pounds, and she estimates that right now she could do 230.

She and Smith have been working on the hammer as well, and he is optimistic that she will be ready to get in the mix at what promises to be an epic Outdoor Championships with three spots on the Worlds team up for grabs.

“If we can get her over eight feet (24.38m) in the weight,” he says, that will set her up well for the outdoor season. Right now, she’s about ninety percent of where she needs to be in the hammer.”

A big throw this weekend would be a big step in the right direction.

The women’s weight competition is scheduled for 2:05pm Pacific time on Sunday.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: Israel Oloyede

Israel Oloyede grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, dreaming of playing football for Arizona State University. He dabbled with the shot and disc while in high school, but football was his main sport. After his senior year, the ASU coaches thought he needed a little seasoning before he was ready play major college football and told him that if he enrolled at Scottsdale Community College they’d give him another look in a year or two.

Israel followed their advice, but it wasn’t long before he decided that Scottsdale CC was not the place for him. He wanted to transfer to another community college where he could continue his football career, but first he had to receive a release from the Scottsdale program. Perhaps intoxicated by the power he wielded as the coach of the SCC Artichokes football team, the head man at Scottsdale refused. Who could have predicted then that his decision would contribute to the current renaissance in the hammer and weight throws in the United States?

Israel ended up transferring to Paradise Valley Community College, located in Phoenix. Their mascot is a Puma. Since he was unable to play football, he decided to resume his career as a thrower.

Jim Lothrop, the Paradise Valley throws coach, recommended Israel try the javelin, and so he did.

Israel says that at first, the javelin seemed “pretty easy,” but before too long, he “got humbled” and could not manage to break fifty-five meters.

He had never really enjoyed throwing the shot and disc in high school, so he agreed to try the weight and hammer, even though he thought at the time that “the weight did not look fun, and the hammer did not look easy.”

Unfortunately, Coach Lothrop was more of a javelin guy, having twice finished in the top eight at the USATF Nationals. Luckily, a former weight/hammer thrower from Louisiana State University, Jeremy Tuttle, was in Phoenix coaching at Ottawa University Arizona and also at a club called the Phoenix Bobcats.

Under the guidance of Coach Tuttle, Israel went from throwing the weight 12.47m and the hammer 54.00m his freshman year to 20.89m in the weight and 63.13m in the hammer as a sophomore. The 20.89m was a national junior college record and got the attention of Coach TJ Crater, who recruited Israel to the University of Arizona.

Over the course of two years, Coach Crater helped Israel set school records of 23.79m in the weight and 73.22m in the hammer. Last summer, Israel made the final at the Olympic Trials, and started to think that maybe he had a future in this business.

With one year of eligibility remaining, Israel then decided to move back home to Phoenix and enroll at Grand Canyon University, which had just hired Nathan Ott as its throws coach.

Ott is best known as the coach of Olympian Brooke Anderson, and training alongside Brooke has been a nice side benefit of transfering to Grand Canyon.

“Being around someone like Brooke has really helped me,” Israel says. “It was the same thing having Jordan Geist to train with at Arizona. Being around great athletes pushes you to do better.”

Israel’s 24.45m throw from this January has him seeded second behind Daniel Haugh going into Sunday’s competition in Spokane.

He is excited to throw against the guys like Haugh and Rudy Winkler that he used to watch compete and would think “I want to be like them.”

Not that Israel will be cowed by the competition. “I threw against those guys in the hammer at Tucson Elite last year,” he recalled, “and I PR’d. Competing against them brought out the best in me, so I won’t be intimidated this this time, either.”

The men’s weight throw competition is scheduled for Sunday at 11:00am Pacific time.

2022 USATF Indoor Champs Preview: Maggie Ewen

Maggie Ewen of the U.S. reacts after winning the Shot Put Women events during the Weltklasse Zurich, Diamond League meeting at the Sechselaeuten Platz on Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Weltklasse Zurich/Urs Jaudas)

This year, Maggie Ewen will be one of the few American athletes for whom making the Indoor World team  will be significantly more challenging than qualifying for the Outdoor Worlds this summer.

That’s because Maggie, after a rough Olympic Trials where she finished in the dreaded number four spot, concluded the 2021 season by winning the Diamond League final in Zurich. Her reward–aside from a sweet-looking trophy and a bit of prize money–was an automatic bye into the 2022 Outdoor Worlds.

So, Maggie will be one of the few athletes chillin’ like a villain at the USATF Outdoor Championships this June. She will compete without pressure while what promises to be a ferociously strong field of putters does battle over the right to join her on the US squad at Worlds.

But that exemption does not apply to Indoor Worlds (to be held March 18th thru 20th in Belgrade) so Maggie will have to finish in the top two this coming weekend at the USATF Indoor Championships in Spokane if she wants to make the team.

Which she does. “Being frank,” she said recently, “with not making the Olympic team, it would be really good mentally to get back on that horse of feeling like I can make teams again, that I am that caliber of thrower.” 

Maggie (whose indoor PB is 19.54m) hit 19.03m at a meet in Fargo on February 5th, and feels like she is rounding into shape. 

The automatic bid to Worlds gave her the luxury of starting her training a bit later this fall as she won’t have to worry about peaking for the US Outdoor Championships, but she has begun seeing nineteen-meter throws “sporadically” in practice, which she says is a good sign.

Maggie believes her strong finish to the 2021 season carried over to 2022. 

“We figured things out technically at the end of last season, and now those things have shown up right away in training. I’m very happy that we don’t need to make any major technical changes.”

The main thing that Maggie and her coach, Kyle Long, figured out late last season, was a way to smooth out her entry coming from the back of the ring. The progress they made allowed her to produce an outdoor season’s best toss of 19.41m in winning that DL title last September.

Much of Maggie’s training this winter has centered around rehearsing the modifications they made last summer so that the movements become automatic. 

“I’m pretty good,” she says, “on the middle and on the finish. It all comes down to whether or not I can have a clean entry.”

Maggie feels like she is in a good place right now in her life and in her career. In 2019, she navigated a coaching change, transitioning from her college mentor Brian Blutreich to Kyle. Then, she and Kyle moved from Arizona to North Dakota. There was also the small matter of dealing with a pandemic. But now, Maggie says, all is calm. 

“Halfway through last year, we found the rhythm of what life and training up here looks like. Things are settling down and lining up, so there is not much to worry about other than training well and throwing far. The more comfortable you are in your own life, in what is going on in your home and with your family, the easier it is to focus on what happens in the ring.”

Maggie will put that focus to use this Saturday at 2:35pm Pacific time. Her main competitors for the top two spots should be Olympic Trials champion Jessica Ramsey, and three time US champion Chase Ealey.

It promises to be a rollicking start to a potentially epic year for the women’s shot put in this country.

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.

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.