Category Archives: Interviews

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.

Preparing for Doha, Part 2

In part one of this post, Dale Stevenson and René Sack shared some insight into how they will adapt their training plans for the 2019 season which, due to the late date of the Doha World Championships, will extend six-to-eight weeks longer than normal.

Dale (coach of 2017 shot put World Champion Tom Walsh) and René (coach of 2011 World Championship discus silver medalist Nadine Müller) are both adherents of block periodization, and they seem confident that this method of planning will provide them with the flexibility they will need to help their athletes adapt to the rigors of a monstrously long season.

JC Lambert, who last year coached DeAnna Price to an American-record in the hammer throw (78.12m), is also in the process of puzzling out how best to manage the 2019 season.

I spoke with JC the old fashioned way, over the phone, and he told me that he and DeAnna learned a lot during the 2018 season that will help them prepare for Doha.  Last year was an important one for DeAnna, as she had to get used to competing through August after several years in the NCAA system where the biggest meets take place in May and June.

“In previous years,” he said, “when she competed in a meet like the DécaNation in September,  she was mentally worn out. So in 2018, we focused on the Continental Cup. We wanted to see if she could throw far overseas late in the summer.”

The importance of throwing well at the Cup, which was held on September 8th, influenced the structure of DeAnna’s training for the entire season.

Indoors, that meant de-emphasizing the weight throw. According to JC, last year they “took maybe nine total practices with the weight and we didn’t even throw much during those practices, maybe eighteen throws. And she competed in three meets. I didn’t really care how far she threw in the first two meets. Then she went to USAs and we didn’t even peak for it–and she ended up going over 80 feet (24.51m) for the first time and got the win. But our goals all focused on the hammer.”

Outdoors, they chose meets based on how they might affect DeAnna’s ability to throw well late in the summer.

JC emphasized that, “chasing the money”  by competing in the IAAF Hammer Challenge meets was “not important.”

“She could have made some money doing that, but how would that impact her training? Would she have been in good mental and physical shape at the Continental Cup?”

Their plan worked well in 2018. After setting the American record in Des Moines in June, DeAnna won the World Cup in Ostrava in September with a toss of 75.46m.  And according to JC, she was in shape to throw even farther.

“If it wasn’t for the stupid format [Note: way too complicated to explain here, but I’ll include an excerpt from the Continental Cup team manual at the bottom of this post], if she had just been able to throw and go after throws she would have thrown 78 meters again. On the 75.46m throw, she had to back off the release just to make sure it stayed in the sector. To end the way that we did made me feel pretty good, though.”

And it gave JC confidence that following a similar approach in 2019 will prepare DeAnna to drop bombs  in Doha.

I asked JC if he would describe his approach to periodization as “block” or “linear.”

“Honestly, a mixture of both, if that’s such a thing. It’s linear from now until the outdoor season, then I block it up until the end. Certain blocks I want to make sure we get a good throw in. Last year it was the NACAC championships. I wanted to make sure that she could get in a good throw, good enough to win but not spend all our cookies at that meet. Then for the Continental Cup, that was a bigger block leading up to a peak.”

One issue unique to hammer throwers is the difficulty they face in finding quality meets when they need them. Right now, I’d imagine that Dale Stevenson knows which competitions Tom Walsh will enter from March through the World Championships. That’s not hard to do, as there are a ton of meets that feature the men’s shot.

Not so with the hammer.

There are plenty of chances for hammer throwers to compete in the States during the college season in April and early May (post-collegiates are welcome at many college meets), but once the NCAA Regionals take place in late May those opportunities disappear.

In the past, JC has hosted a couple of competitions in June so that DeAnna could stay sharp. He’d like to do the same this summer.

“My hope would be to put one on leading up to the USA Championships [held July 25-28 this year] just to make sure we can stay competitive, stay in the ring, keep it in the sector, not have to travel very far before the US Championships.”

And will she be competing in Europe as well?

“I’d like to send her over, especially since we don’t have to worry about the US Championships until July. I’d like to send her over early on, then get her back in the States with enough time before the US Championships, maybe four or five weeks before. Get her back on track with her sleep schedule, eating, training, lifting…make sure we have all the bases covered.”

Assuming DeAnna makes the US team for Doha, she and JC then have to deal with the two-month gap between the US Championships and the Worlds.

“There ain’t going to be many meets around that time in the US.  At that time, people are going to be shutting their season down, but  we are going to have to find competitions somewhere.”

The bottom line for a hammer thrower in this or any other season? Flexibility.

“You go with the flow,” JC explained. “You adapt and survive as you go. You play the hand you’re dealt and make the best of it. If I get an idea in my head of the ‘perfect scenario’ it ain’t going to work out that way, and then we’re going to be stressed. The way I look at it, if something comes up, it comes up. If not we’ll find a way.”

I touched bases with one final coach on the matter of preparing for Doha, and he may face the oddest situation of all trainers of elite throwers. Torsten Lönnfors is the coach of Chris Harting, the defending Olympic champion in the discus. Like JC Lambert, Torsten prefers to employ a combination of linear and block periodization when planning a season’s worth of training.

He told me via email that “for Chris, it will be a traditional linear periodization. Only the last six to eight weeks before Doha would be kind of a block, if Chris will compete there.”

When Torsten says “if Chris will compete” in Doha, he is not referring to the possibility that Chris might not qualify to represent the German team. Chris has made it known that he does not want to compete at the 2019 Worlds.

According to Torsten, Chris is “already concentrating on Tokyo,” and is concerned that the late date of the Doha Championships combined with a need to recover from the 2019 season, combined with his obligation to serve four weeks of police duty each fall will make it impossible to begin his 2020 training in time to get in top shape for the 2020 Olympics.

Something tells me, though, that the German Federation, which supports Chris financially, will try to get him to change his mind, especially if he proves during the spring and early summer that he is Germany’s best hope for a Doha discus medal.

Time will tell for Chris and for all the athletes and coaches trying to figure out the best way to adjust their training in what promises to be a strange year in athletics.

Speaking of strange, here is the explanation of the rules for the throwing events at the 2018 Continental Cup. I have cut and pasted it from the Team Manual published by the IAAF.

Enjoy!

502.3.2 Field Events High Jump and Pole Vault are conducted according to IAAF rules. Long Jump, Triple Jump, Shot Put, Discus Throw, Hammer Throw and Javelin Throw (“Horizontal Field Events”) will have two phases. In the first phase (Qualification), all athletes have three trials after which they are ranked. The highest ranked athlete from each team (i.e. a total of four athletes) proceed to Round 4. All other athletes are eliminated and ranked from fifth to eighth according to their best performance after three rounds of trials. Round 4 (Semi-Final) and Round 5 (Final) is the second phase of the competition. In Round 4, the two lowest ranked athletes are ranked third and fourth according to their performance in this round and are eliminated. The two best ranked athletes in Round 4 proceed to Round 5, which is the final round. In Round 5, the better ranked athlete in this round wins the competition, the other is second. The competing order in all the five rounds will be the initial draw order. If all the four athletes fail in Round 4, the two best ranked athletes after the first 3 rounds will go to Round 5. If in Round 4 only one athlete has a valid performance, the second athlete to progress to Round 5 will be the athlete (from a different team) with the best valid performance after the first 3 rounds. If in Round 5 both athletes fail, the winner is the athlete with the better performance in Round 4. If in Round 4 those athletes failed, the winner is the athlete with the better performance after the first 3 rounds and the other is second.

 

 

Preparing for Doha, Part 1

Winning a medal at a World Championships is never easy, but winning one in 2019 might be trickier than usual.

In most years, professional throwers practice and compete over a ten-month span. Serious training begins in November. Important competitions stretch from May through the summer with the most important–the World Championships or Olympics–generally taking place in early-to-mid August. At the Rio Olympics, for example, track events began on August 12th. The 2017 World Athletics Championships in London opened on August 1st.

The 2019 season, however, will be different. Due to the climate in Doha, where August temperatures tend to be unbearable, the 2019 World Championships will not begin until September 27th.

This creates a challenge for throws coaches who must design and manage a plan for their athletes that accounts for an extra six-to-eight weeks of training while somehow keeping them fresh for Doha.

Curious as to how different coaches would handle this predicament, I contacted a few.

One person I for sure wanted to check in with was Dale Stevenson, coach of the defending shot put World Champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand.

Dale and Tom have become experts at handling extra-long seasons because for them, every season is extra-long. As New Zealand is located in the Southern Hemisphere, their outdoor national championships take place in March, a full two months before the outdoor season even begins in North America and Europe where most of Tom’s competitors reside. 

So Tom and Dale have had to devise a system that allows Tom to maintain excellent form two-to-three months longer than many of his rivals.

And based on recent results, they seem to have figured out a way to do just that. 

Last year, for example, Tom won the Indoor World Championships in Birmingham on March 3rd with a monster toss of 22.31m.  A week later, he headed back to New Zealand and won his national championships with a put of 21.58m. He then stayed in great shape through the months of June (22.29m at the Oslo Diamond League Meeting), July (21.92m at Lausanne) and August (22.60m to win the Diamond League final in Zurich on the 30th of that month).

That’s six solid months of excellent putting.

I asked Dale, via email, how they’ll attempt to stretch that to eight months in 2019 and put Tom in position to defend his World title.

Dale seems confident that he and Tom can handle the challenge, and that confidence seems to stem in part from their use of block periodization.

According to Dale, he and Tom “always follow the same planning structure” for Tom’s training. That structure consists of a sequence of four training phases which Dale calls “Slow Eccentric,” “Fast Eccentric,” “Ballistic,” and “Competition.” The sequence can be modified to last anywhere from two-to-six months, and always consists of those four phases repeated in that order.

A quick note on terminology. In the past, when coaches referred to “periodization” they generally meant “linear periodization.” A training plan based on linear periodization would begin with a high-volume “preparation” or “hypertrophy” phase and gradually morph over a period of months towards a low-volume, higher intensity phase before ending with a maintenance phase during which an athlete would devote a minimum amount of time and energy to strength exercises–just enough to maintain the raw power necessary to throw far. This final phase would be timed to coincide with the most important competitions, and if calibrated correctly would allow the athlete to derive the benefits of all those months of hard training and throw their best when it counts the most. 

In a plan designed in the linear style, the various phases would not be repeated. Once an athlete moved past the high volume phase, for example, they would not engage in high volume training again until the following season.

A training plan utilizing “block periodization” would include the same basic phases as a linear plan, but over the course of the training year those phases would be repeated in segments or “blocks” of varying length. So, instead of engaging in say ten weeks of fairly high volume training during the winter months and then leaving high volume workouts behind for good as might be typical in a linear plan, an athlete training in the block style would engage in a shorter period of high volume training each time the block was repeated. And over the course of a ten-month season, the block would be repeated several times.

Here’s an analogy.

Linear periodization is like working hard at your job and saving all the money you can from November through May so that you can enjoy yourself on an extended summer vacation.  The more money you sock away during your “accumulation” phase, the longer your vacation will last. 

Block periodization would involve breaking up the save/spend cycle into a series of mini-cycles during which you’d save for a bit, spend that money on a shorter vacation, and repeat the process several times over the course of a year.

Advocates of a linear periodization system would argue that each phase of training must be maintained long enough to produce the desired training effect. If you want to produce hypertrophy in your athletes, for example, you must spend the time necessary to create that hypertrophy before moving on to another phase. Chopping the training year into blocks might not allow each phase of each block enough time to work its magic.

The challenge faced in 2019 by those using a linear model is that athletes cannot maintain peak fitness indefinitely. Once they begin a “maintenance” or “competition” phase and get farther away from their last strength-building phase, the clock begins to tick on their ability to generate maximum power. Eventually, the strength they accumulated during several months of preparation will diminish, like the savings of the aforementioned vacationer. With the Diamond League schedule beginning as usual in May, and the Worlds not taking place until late September, coaches have to figure out how to keep their athletes in competitive shape for a much longer stretch than they are used to.

Those like Dale Stevenson who favor a block periodization model might argue that it provides coaches the flexibility they need to manage this kind of situation. Each block contains a strength building phase, which would ideally restore an athlete’s ability to generate maximum power and produce peak throws.  Repeating the block ensures that an athlete never goes too long without rebuilding their capacity to throw far. 

Dale and Tom vary the length of each sequence depending on the importance of various competitions.

“If a short cycle is required (such as before World Indoors), then each phase is fifteen to eighteen days in duration, whereas a longer cycle might be forty-two days per phase. Pretty simple but it works for us.”

Rest will also be important if Tom is to be at his best in October.

He took seven weeks off after the 2018 campaign before starting back with twice-weekly sessions. Last week marked his return to a full training schedule.

Dale also plans to help Tom conserve some energy by de-emphasizing the Diamond League schedule.

“We will be sacrificing some of the meets in May-August next year to ensure we’re ready for October, some by reducing expectation of performance or simply skipping them altogether.”

Another coach who will be employing block periodization and emphasizing rest as he prepares his athletes for the 2019 season is René Sack, the German national coach for the women’s discus. René’s most prominent athlete is 2011 World Championships discus silver medalist Nadine Müller.

I spoke with René via the worldwide web, and he told me that the main adjustment he will be making in preparing Nadine for the 2019 season will be figuring out ways to include more rest in her training.

“I think you have to plan much more regeneration time,” he said. “I switched to the block periodization model last year. With Nadine, we do the European Winter Throwing Cup in the middle of March to see where we are at, then I will give her one or two weeks off. Then we will go to Chula Vista for three weeks for a training camp and begin the next phase.”

“The German Championships are on 3rd and 4th August, and the week after this she will get one more week free. You can’t train and do competitions for eleven months without finding ways to sneak in rest.”

René also plans to take special care to monitor the energy levels of his athletes throughout the season. He will regularly “do some surveys with the athletes where they answer a few questions to help me see how they are feeling so I can say ‘Ok, looks like you are really tired. Just go home and I’ll see you on Monday.’”

Like Dale Stevenson, René values the flexibility of block periodization and the way that the blocks can be stretched or shortened to suit an athlete’s needs.

René calls the first phase of his blocks an “accumulation phase.” During the first block of Nadine’s training, he will have her perform sets of ten during that phase. As the season progresses, the accumulation phase will always be the highest volume segment of a given block, but that volume will decrease relative to the accumulation phase in the first block. If Nadine’s first accumulation phase requires her to perform five sets of ten reps on various exercises, that may drop to sets of seven or “maybe a pyramid” in the second block.

“I change exercises too, ” he continued. “They might do heavy squats and leg press in the first block to prepare the structures for heavy lifting, and the next block maybe squats only, then later single leg squats or step-ups.” This is also designed to keep the athletes fresh over the course of a long season.

Like many coaches of elite throwers, René also has his athletes train with a variety of implements as a way of developing “special strength.”  Nadine routinely throws 1.2k and 1.5k discs in practice, with a 2k mixed in on occasion. Over the last two years, they have “played around” with a 0.8k disc, which Nadine can throw over 70 meters when she can get a good flight on it.

René estimates that Nadine has taken 120,000 throws in her life, so unlike a novice who needs to build technique, “she just needs to remind the body how to do it.”

If he can calibrate her training correctly, Nadine’s body and mind will be fresh and  ready to launch some big throws in Doha.

For part two of this article, I will share insights from JC Lambert, (coach of hammer thrower DeAnna Price) and Torsten Lönnfors, (coach of 2016 Olympic discus champion Chris Harting) on how they will prepare their charges for the rigors of the upcoming season.

 

An inside look at the German club system

Are you the type of person who strikes up conversations with folks at airports or on subways or in line for a bagel?

My wife is. You sit next to her on an airplane, and she will know your life story by the time you reach your destination.

I ‘m usually not like that, but while I was waiting in line at the airport in Berlin about to begin my journey home from the 2018 European Championships last August, I couldn’t help myself.

The guy standing behind me had a credential from the meet hanging around his neck, and I guess I was still buzzing from the endorphins I’d accumulated while watching some of the best throwers in the world compete in front of 60,000 joyous fans at the Berlin Olympiastadion because next thing I knew I was talking to him about the meet.

It turns out that he was a German club coach from Wiesbaden in town to attend the Euros, and more specifically to watch the throwing events.

His name is Zlatko Zigric, and after  we spoke for a few minutes I told him about Mcthrows and asked if I could do an interview with him regarding the German club system which has helped to produce so many outstanding throwers.

It’s funny, Germans have a reputation for reticence, which I sometimes think is well-earned. They will not, for example, acknowledge you when you pass them on the street. Nor will their dogs. German dogs are so well-trained that their owners can take them anywhere (the park, the tram, restaurants) secure in the knowledge that their dog will not embarrass them by sniffing butts or stealing liver wurst.  Here, for example, is a picture I took of a dog patiently waiting in line at a post office in Berlin:

Looks like he’s waiting to mail a letter, doesn’t he?

Luckily for me, German throws coaches are not at all standoffish when it comes to talking about their craft. Zlatko was the fourth German coach I’d had the opportunity to chat with in Berlin, and each was exceedingly generous in sharing information and doing so in English. He even supplied the photos of his club facilities that are contained in this post.

If, like me, you are familiar with the American method of developing track and field athletes, I think you’ll be intrigued by the advantages and disadvantages of our school-based approach compared with the German club-based system.

Clearly, we in America benefit from the affiliation of sports programs with schools. At my high school in the suburbs of Chicago, for example, we had 250 boys and girls on our track team last year. Our crosstown rival had almost as many, so in a single American city of 50,000 people, nearly 500 teenagers competed in track and field. Throw in another 200 or so pre-teens competing at our middle schools, and that is a lot of potential talent entering the pipeline. That level of participation would not be possible, though, without our public school system paying coaches and providing facilities.

German schools do not do that.

Nor do they have university programs that provide financial aid and world-class coaching as the best athletes take the next steps in their development.

The German club system does, however, provide a support system for athletes for the duration of their careers, thus eliminating a big hurdle faced by American post-collegiates: how to stay in the sport long enough to reach their ultimate potential.

The German federation also provides club coaches with access to a comprehensive training program to enhance their ability to develop young athletes.

But, enough from me. Let’s hear about this from Zlatko.

Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up?

I was born 1963 in Zagreb (former Yugoslavia, today’s Croatia). When I was four years old, my parents migrated to Germany where my father’s ancestors originally came from. From elementary school to my graduation in electronics in the university I was educated in Germany.

What were your athletic experiences?

When I was twelve years old, I became part of my school’s track and field team where I threw the 200-gram ball in a competition between different schools of my hometown Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt/Main). A school friend who also was a team member invited me to join him in the track and field club where he was a member because no one in the club could throw the ball as far as I did. At that time, I would have rather liked to train martial arts but my parents did not allow this. So I joined my school friend in his track and field club. There I found a friendly group of peers who were instructed by an experienced coach.

Quickly, I was integrated in this clique and we had a lot of engagements even outside our sports activities. This experience strongly influenced my attitude to sports and to track and field in particular. Track and field athletes are often considered to be strong individualists and for that reason will not perform any team sport. This may be true for some of them, but it is true for some guys who perform team sports as well. Actually, performing the same sport in the same club or in the same sports ground brings people together anyway.

Training track and field disciplines was great fun for me. I worked out three times a week. If my coach would have offered, I would have worked out every day. I found it boring to only just run, throw or jump, so I found my way to decathlon. When I was fourteen years old I tried to throw discus for the first time. By chance, I had a good feeling for this discipline and a month after my first throw I reached a distance of 47,58 m with the 1 kg discus. The throwing disciplines stayed my favorites among the disciplines of the decathlon or heptathlon.

Unfortunately, my training group was dissolved when I was sixteen years old. I still kept on training somehow about three times a week and attended some competitions until I got drafted in the basic military service, but the results were moderate as it was to be expected with the lack of coaching instructions. Anyway, at that time I reached ranks somewhere around the first five in the provincial level of the German Federal State of Hessen in the throwing disciplines and in Decathlon.

How did you become a coach?

After I finished the basic military service, which was obligatory in Germany at that time, I turned to old habits and started to work out regularly on the well known sports ground. There I met some old friends who had the same idea. We became a training group. After some training sessions where each time we first had to discuss what to train together I got the idea to ask a former coach of our club to help and instruct me to build up a training plan. Because I took the initiative, I became the administrator of the training plan and suddenly I was “the coach.” Also, I started reading literature and articles about track and field training methods, techniques for the disciplines and about athletic training in general. Then I started developing new plans and instructing my athletes autonomously.

Soon, younger athletes joined my training group and the generations changed with the time. After my friends who were my first athletes as a coach stopped training regularly because of their jobs and families, I coached young people from fourteen to twenty years of age.

Besides studying (and later besides my job) I found no time to obtain a coaching license. I made up for this eight years ago when I changed my job from an IT manager to a teacher at a vocational school. This year, I plan to obtain the  coaching license in the A-level to gain further knowledge and to learn to know other coaches to exchange views.

 

What will you have to do to obtain your A-level coaching certificate?

The German Athletics Association’s (Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband DLV) licensing model for coaches for competitive sport provides three successive and interrelated levels:

Level C is intended for the basic track and field training of children in the age of eleven to fourteen years. The education of the coaches includes one week of gaining general basic knowledge in sport science in a first part focusing on topics like:  

– impact of sporting activities on muscles, tendons, bones, vessels, nerves and the cardiovascular system

– general training structure

– good and bad general sporting exercises, etc.

The second part of the education usually takes place on weekends and includes practical and theoretical training in the specific track and field disciplines (techniques, exercises, training structure). Usually the education ends with a theoretical and a practical test. All together it takes a time of at least 120 learning units (45 min each) to obtain the track and field C license.

Level B is intended for those training young athletes in the age of fifteen to nineteen years. The scope of this license is focused on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprints, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:

– long-term planning and controlling of track and field training

– biological development and physiological principles of performance of adolescents

– technique models and teaching them to athletes with different skill levels

– social, pedagogical and psychological competences etc.

Usually the education ends with a test covering the development of a training plan for a specific period and an analysis of an athlete’s technique with proposals for exercises to improve the detected deficiencies. To obtain the B license at least 60 learning units are required.

Level A is intended for athletes in the age from 19 years. This coaching level is intended for top-level sports and focuses on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprinting, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:

– training strategies for young athletes and top-level sport

– short-, middle- and long-term planning, documentation and evaluation

– physiological and biological basics of performance

– psychological controlling during training and competitions

– talent scouting and promotion etc.

This education consists of three parts:

  1. Five days course with theoretical and practical instructions.
  2. Work shadowing training and competitions with a DLV (German Athletics Association) coach.
  3. Three days exam course.

Additionally to the exam, a homework needs to be developed in which the coach plans the training process of his own group of athletes, documents the realization and the controlling and finally analyzes and evaluates the process. To obtain the A license, at least 90 learning units are required.

As I mentioned above, the licenses are successive. To obtain the A license you first need to obtain the C and the B license  and you need to be active as a B-license coach at least for three years. To keep the license, a coach needs to periodically attend courses.

 

What kinds of athletes are you currently training? How old are they and what are your typical practices like?

I currently train young athletes in the age of fifteen up to nineteen years of age.  Four guys train and compete in decathlon, and one of the guys has specialized in discus and shotput. Additionally, two athletes who do not compete and do not work out five-to-six times a week join our training group. Most likely a few new young athletes will join the group soon because their old training group was dissolved. This year, my athletes reached the highest ranks in our federal state and rank among the first thirty in the federal level of Germany.

I suppose that my typical practices are very common. A usual training session consists of warming up, short stretching, coordination exercises, discipline training and finally a chill out run and/ or stretching. Mostly we train two disciplines in one training session, but this depends on the season. In the development phase, which will start very soon, we have a lot of training sessions without any specific discipline training. Instead, the athletes do more weight lifting, specific gymnastics, explosive power training, etc.. In my training plan I orient myself on the proposals of the DLV’s (German Athletics Association) outline training plan.

 

Here in the US, when an athlete finishes high school (usually at the age of eighteen) if they wish someday to be a professional thrower they enroll at a university and train and compete there for four or five years. In your case, if you have a promising athlete would they continue to train at your club as they reach the age of eighteen or nineteen or would they join a training group run by a full time coach? And how is that decision made?

Track and field sport in Germany is mainly performed in small clubs, which are operated by volunteers. But there are a few bigger clubs which are sponsored by companies. These clubs can afford to engage coaches and administrative staff who do their jobs professionally. The athletics associations of the federal states of Germany and the German Athletic Association engage full time coaches and volunteers to coach the squads. The German talent development program plans that young talents are spotted already in the age from thirteen years. The young talents stay with their clubs, but they will be promoted with additional training sessions which are given from the coaches of the athletic federation of the related federal state. The association’s coaches are supposed to advise and to coordinate the training schedules with the home coaches. The talent promotion is built up in squads from E to A. Squads E to D cover young talents from twelve to approximately nineteen years. These are coordinated by the federal states associations. The German athletic association covers squads C to A. Squad C covers young athletes from sixteen to twenty-two years. Squads B and A are intended for grown-up top athletes. The call for an athlete to a specific squad depends on the performance of a particular athlete who is spotted by the coaches of the associations.

A good promotion for German top class athletes is granted when they start a police career or a career in the German Armed Forces. The athletes obtain a complete professional education, a paid workplace and time for the necessary training to be a top athlete.

Some sports funding exists in Germany like e.g. “Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe“. This way top athletes can obtain some financial support. Some athletic clubs are able to organize a sponsoring for their top athletes. And here I come to the probably most important trigger for decisions of athletes why and when to change their club. When an athlete decides to get professional with his or her sport, he or she needs to be financed.

The school system in Germany in general is not intended to promote sport talents. At best, the teachers recommend a young athlete to join a sports club if they can see a talent. A few schools cooperate with sports clubs in order to promote talents in the way that training sessions get coordinated and home work and tests are scheduled on dates which are the least inconvenient e.g. to perform on competitions on weekends.

If young athletes reach higher performance levels, they usually change their club for one or two reasons: they expect better training options and/or they expect a better financial support. Because the bigger clubs have better options to cater for these expectations, young athletes often change from a smaller club to a bigger club when they reach a higher performance level.

In my club, we try to promote a few athletes who reached the top class and who are close to it. But there is an everlasting discussion about the main goals of the club: Are we able to handle the development of young talents plus the promotion of top athletes, or do we neglect many interested young athletes because we focus on a few top athletes?

By the way, not all top athlete coaches are full time coaches. For instance Günther Eisinger,  who was the coach of the former very successful high jumper Ariane Friedrich, earned his living as a teacher before he became a pensioner. He was just “crazy” enough to spend all the rest of his time to coach and manage top class athletes besides his job.

Dear Readers: Let me know if you have questions for Zlatko and I’ll bug him about a follow-up interview.

 

Sandra Perkovic is not here for funny

 

A few nights ago, I visited a beer garden in Berlin with some friends, one of whom absentmindedly walked past the bouncer whose job it was to examine people’s bags. The bouncer was German, but he could tell we were not so he switched to English to chastise us.

”Listen,” he scolded. “I ‘m not here for funny!”

There’s poetry in that declaration, and  it captures perfectly the attitude that Sandra Perkovic, two-time Olympic champion, two-time World champion, and winner of forty-two Diamond League meetings, brings to each and every competition.

I was present for the first of those Diamond League wins, at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York in 2010, and it was apparent right away  that the nineteen-year-old Perkovic was something special. On that humid morning when the dead air seemed to suck the life out of the rest of the field, Sandra competed with a passion that demanded attention.

A couple of years later, I saw her throw at the Adidas meeting again, this time in a driving rain with temperatures in the forties. On that day, I stood near Sandra’s coach, Edis Elkasević, both of us freezing the buns off, and watched as he and Sandra conferred between throws. At one point during the competition, an official decided (in spite of the fact that the running events did not even begin for another hour) to block Sandra as she crossed the track to speak with Edis. She did not even break stride.  “You, shut up, you!” she commanded. And he did.

Her adrenaline pumping, Sandra launched her next attempt sixty-eight meters.

So, she is not one to mess around, this Sandra Perkovic.  No less an expert than René Sack, coach of the highly decorated Nadine Müller, told me that Sandra’s ferocity might be the quality that separates her from the other top-notch women’s disc throwers. “She is a nice person,” he said, “but during the competition, she wants to kill you.”

And, at the risk of some throws fans wanting to kill me, can I just get this out of the way right now and state that Sandra is very close to establishing herself as the greatest discus thrower of all time?

I know, I know. No one will ever match Al Oerter’s four Olympic golds, or his remarkable comeback when, as a forty-three-year-old geezer, he finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic Trials. I mean this as no dis to Al. He is deservedly a legend.

So is Virgilius Alekna, with his two Olympic golds and two World titles.

So is Robert Harting, who a few days prior to the women’s disc final, made his last appearance as a member of the German national team. Robert will retire at the end of this season with one Olympic and three World Championship golds.

The one thrower whose list of achievements may still outshine Sandra’s is Lars Reidel, winner of one Olympics and an incredible five World Championships.

Keep in mind that though the Olympics are special and attract a tremendous amount of interest, the World Championships are, for track and field athletes, the same thing minus the synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Winning a World Championship gold means surviving a qualification day then defeating the very best in your event inside a huge, often raucous stadium. It is just as difficult as winning an Olympics.

If we can agree that World and Olympic golds are equal in value, then we can say that Al won four major titles, as did Alekna and Harting. That leaves Lars on the top of the heap with six.

As mentioned above, Sandra has two Olympic and two World titles to her credit, so she’s short of Lars in that department. But, consider her forty-two Diamond League wins. Since 2010, she has competed against and defeated her main rivals five times a year at Diamond League venues all over the world. That’s a level of consistency that no other thrower in  history can match.

If Sandra can maintain that level for the next two years, pick up another World title in Qatar, another Olympic title in Tokyo, push her total number of DL wins into the fifties…to me that would make her the best there ever was.

I imagine that Sandra came to Berlin last week quite conscious of the opportunity these Championships offered to further burnish her legacy. A win in Berlin would be her fifth consecutive Euro title, a feat that no athlete in any event had accomplished.

And with a season’s best throw of 71.38m, seven meters farther than anyone else in the field, her odds of winning that fifth title seemed more than deece.

Thursday morning’s qualification round exposed no chinks in Sandra’s armor. She settled matters quickly with a first attempt of 64.54m to lead all qualifiers.

It seemed likely that the battle for silver and bronze would come down to the three German entries,  Shanice Craft…

…who reached 61.13m in qualification…

…Claudine Vita…

….who hit 59.18m, and Nadine Müller…

…who produced the second best throw of the prelims, 60.64m.

Another intriguing qualifier was Italy’s Daisy Osakue, the US Division II collegiate champion for Angelo State University in Texas.

Coming nearly three months after the end of a long collegiate season, Daisy’s qualifying throw of 58.73m was impressive. Making her achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that two weeks earlier, while training in Turin, Italy, she had suffered a scratched cornea when struck in the eye by an egg thrown from a speeding car. The incident put Daisy squarely in the middle of a recent controversy over the anti-immigrant stance of the newly elected Italian government led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. It has been suggested, much to Conte’s chagrin, that the assault on Daisy was inspired by his government’s inflammatory and often racist rhetoric.

Either way, it was a traumatic and extremely ill-timed experience for Daisy and made it seem unlikely that she’d make an appearance in Berlin, let alone advance to Saturday night’s final.

But advance she did.

A storm that rolled through just after the men’s javelin final on Thursday left pleasant weather in its wake and helped to create absolutely lovely conditions on Saturday.  Here are Coach Sack and Nadine Müller enjoying the cool evening air at the warmup ring outside the stadium…

…as Edis Elkasević and Sandra Perkovic plotted their assault on that fifth straight Euro title.

Eventually, the athletes were loaded aboard carts and transported inside…

…where they were greeted by 60,000 spectators ready to support a solid lineup of German athletes including medal contenders in the men’s high jump, women’s long jump, and of course the disc.

And for a while, Germans held the lead in all three of those events.

I know nothing about the high jump or long jump, so I can’t say whether or not things played out as expected there, but you can count me as very surprised when Nadine Müller entered the fifth round with a three-meter edge over Sandra in the disc.

Here’s how it came about.

Nadine entered the meet with a season’s best of 62.73m (a bit subpar for her as she has surpassed the 65.00m mark every year since 2009) and in round two, she bumped that season’s best to 63.00m.

It’s hard to imagine Sandra being rattled by Nadine’s throw, but for the first four rounds, she clearly was not her normal butt-kicking self.

This was odd, as Sandra seemed in excellent shape at the warm-up track. Here she is smashing a pre-meet power position throw:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Tyh3SX6nec

She caged her first attempt of the competition, though, then went 59.09m in the second round on a throw that looked like it might have gotten a piece of the cage as well. She followed that up with a round-three 59.97m.

I’m not gonna lie, it was weird. The crowd was understandably pro-Deutschland, and they were going nuts the whole time over the high and long jumps and over their discus trio, but those folks appreciate great throwing and they clearly wanted to see Sandra go 70.00m. They  gave her plenty of love each time she entered the ring, and she was the only non-German thrower afforded the honor of having a quick burst of rock music blasted through the PA system before each of her throws to signal folks to stop watching the jumps for a second and pay attention to the discus.

Sandra usually thrives on that stuff, but on this night, she looked lost.

Meanwhile, Claudine Vita put herself in second place going into the reordering with a third-round toss of 61.23m, while Daisy (58.09m) and Shanice (59.73m) each earned the full six throws with their second-round efforts.

As the fourth round began, the place was going absolutely bonkers. The German high jumper, Mateusz Przybylko, was locked in a duel for the gold medal and his every attempt inspired huge cheers from the fans. At the same time,  German long jumper Malaika Mihambo, was contending for gold as well, so there were lots of reasons for folks to make noise.

I kept wondering how the throwers dealt with all the distractions they faced in a competition like this. For sure, noise and excitement must be preferable to throwing in front of the docile and comparitively sparse crowd that showed up for the morning qualification rounds, But on this night it was not unusual for a discus thrower to be midway through their windup only to have 60,000 people erupt over a high jump clearance. And the masterful way that the Germans managed the proceedings on this night, using the large video screens and the PA system to cue the fans when a big moment was unfolding, caused frequent delays at the discus cage. Whenever a race was about to start, or even when the runners were being introduced, all throwing stopped.

So I can see why some athletes, especially those who had not experienced this type of atmoshphere before, might struggle to maintain  focus.

But Perkovic? There is nothing she hasn’t seen and contended with throughout her long career.  Bad weather. Bad officiating. Huge crowds. No crowds. At the Rio Olympics, she opened with two fouls in the qualification round and in the finals and still came away with the gold medal. And clearly, someone with forty-two Diamond League wins knows how to squeeze out an excellent throw even when feeling “off” on a given day.

So I knew for sure that Sandra would regain her composure during the reordering  and set everything straight on her fourth throw.

Which she proceeded to whang into the cage.

I’m sure Nadine would have loved to take advantage of Sandra’s mysterious loss of rhythm and put a little more distance between them, but in round four she managed only 61.99m. Daisy, seemingly oblivious to any and all distractions, nailed a near-PB of 59.32m in round five to move into fifth place, while Claudine and Shanice each fouled their fourth and fifth attempts.

The swallows returning to Capistrano. My mother-in-law ringing the doorbell while I am taking a nap. Some things in life are inevitable.

And so it was with Perkovic. She finally found her rhythm on her fifth throw, a toss of 67.62m, which secured the gold medal and restored natural order to the throwing universe.

Both Sandra and Nadine fouled in round six, but Shanice Craft drilled a 62.46m which jumped her past Vita into third place.

Here are the happy medalists:

Daisy ended up fifth, and the experience left her utterly stoked.

”This year has been so wonderful!” she exclaimed after the competition. “I did my PR (59.72m) at the Angelo State Relays in April, then I won the DII nationals, then I came to Italy, went to the Diamond League meeting in Rome, won the U23 Mediterranean Championships, came her and got fifth. So, like…wow!”

“My first goal was to make it to the finals, so I got to the finals and I was like ‘Wow, what did I just do?’ Then I tried my best to get in the first eight so I could get three more throws, and I don’t know, I just ended up fifth! I ‘m super overwhelmed, so I think I ‘m talking too fast. It is something crazy! I would never have expected it, fifth place in Euro from nowhere?”

And what was it like throwing in front of 60,000 fans?

“I loved it! The cheering! It’s a big stadium, so I was scared that I wouldn’t react to it the right way, but I think I got the right thing!”

I was curious how she managed to stay sharp over the course of a very long season, and Daisy gave equal credit to Nathan Janusey, her throws coach at San Angelo State, and Maria Marello, her coach in Italy.

“They talked a lot and coordinated everything.  And our head coach Thomas Delbert helped me a lot. He knows that I am a transfer student from Italy. He says ‘Don’t worry. Just do this, this, this for San Angelo, then you can do this, this, this for Italy.’ So it worked out great.”

I was also curious how a thrower from Italy ended up attending a university located in San Angelo, Texas.

“They chose me! I got a message from Coach Janusey on Facebook ‘Would you like to come to San Angelo?’ I was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know.’ Then I talked  to my parents and my coach, and they said ‘It will be a great experience, so you have to try it.’”

“It was hard adjusting at first, but we have athletes from all over the world. After a month, I got friends. This is thanks to my biggest problem—my parents say that I can talk to walls, that I can talk to any living thing or not living thing!”

Like Daisy, Shanice Craft was positively giddy over her performance.

She moved to Berlin a year ago to join the training group of Robert and Julia Harting under the direction of Coach Marko Badura, and she was very happy with her new situation.

“I love it! Before, I was in Mannheim and I didn’t have a training group. Now I have two very good teammates. We have a lot of fun, and we push each other. It gives me so much motivation to see them work!”

I asked her if it was difficult to maintain focus that night with all the delays interrupting the flow of the competition.

“I should be able to block that out, but today I had big problems. There were so many breaks from the competition that it was very hard for me to stay focused, and I just felt like I couldn’t do anything in the ring.”

“Lots of my friends and my family were here, and after the fifth attempt I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that to them.’  The last attempt, I wanted something big. I came here to get a medal, and I thought ‘No, it’s not possible that I will get fourth place.’  For my last attempt I thought of Robert Harting’s last throw at the World Championships in 2009. I was here at the stadium that night! Before my final throw, I was watching that competition in my head. I had it in front of my eyes.  I wanted to do the same thing that Robert did that night!”

I reminded Shanice that after winning the gold in 2009, Robert had picked up Berlino—the large, cuddly bear mascot—and romped around with him on his back.

“I have to go to the gym more so I can do that next time!”

I spoke with Nadine Müller next, and it turns out that her less than stellar season up to that point had been due to a back injury she sustained in April which cost her several weeks of training.

“In April, before we were to fly to a training camp, during the final training I injured my back so I could not fly. I missed a lot of throws, I could not throw for three weeks.”

“I have lost so many throws this season,” she lamented. “I hope the rest of this season I can be fine and the next competition throw past 63.00m.”

As with the other throwers, Nadine loved the level of excitement in the stadium, but did not appreciate all the delays.

“I think it’s okay when they start a race to have us break, but there were so many other breaks where they made us wait two or three minutes,  But it is the same always in major competitions.”

Nadine would know, having competed in two Olympics and five World Championships. She won silver in Daegu in 2011 and bronze in Beijing in 2015. I asked if over the years she had been able to develop a method for handling the interruptions.

“Yes,” she laughed. “I‘m the old lady who has so many finals! I think by now it is easier for me. I ‘m a cool down girl, so I can stay focused better than the young ones,”

Just then, the  queen of focus happened by, carrying a large stuffed animal and reveling in another moment of triumph.

She attributed her struggles on this night to an uncharacteristic bout of overconfidence, “Because I was in really good shape, and in the first or second round I was thinking ‘If my discus just go out of the net, I will be European champion.” Maybe I was thinking is going to be easy job for me.”

“Then in the third round  I messed up again, and I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, what is going on? You cannot be yourself?’ Then I also had a nice try in the fourth round, which also went into the net. Then, before the fifth round I started saying ‘Oh my god, your training! Your goals! You have four European gold, and this is your chance for a fifth one like nobody did. You want to miss it?'”

“I told myself before my fifth throw, ‘You want to wait for the sixth attempt in front of a German crowd?’ And then I saw it fly, and I know it is 65.00m plus, minimum. Then I saw 67.62m,

‘All the girls know they need to wait for me and in one round I will get it. I’m used to throws like last year in London, where it was like 69.00m then 70.00m then 70.00m again then 69.00m again. It was an easy peasy competition for me, but this time was strange.”

I asked if she noticed that the crowd was on her side.

“Yes,” she said. “I was fighting against the Germans but they support me! But I didn’t have good, positive vibes around me. It wasn’t the other girls or the crowd.  I was confused, and I never felt that before.”

“The last few days, I had some problems. A bee stung me in training! And one day I was was working and I flipped my ankle. Maybe these things distracted me.”

Having seen how much she relies on Edis during competitions, I wondered if Sondra worried that the stress he must feel on nights like this was might be shortening his life span.

“No, he is a very strong person! After the third round, he really woke me up. He was like, ‘You want the crowd to enjoy this moment or not? Will you waste all your training or will you win a fifth gold like nobody has before?'”

“He knows that if you start talking shit to me, I’ll be like, ‘Are you serious? Now you’re gonna see!”

I ran into Edis a few minutes later. He was slowly making his way through the stands with a friend at his side. He looked drained.

“Come on,” I teased him. “You knew she’d come through.”

His friend spoke up.

“That’s right! We did. It was her fifth European title, so she waited for the fifth throw to win. It all makes sense!”

With that they strode off in search of Sandra.

This was my final night in Berlin, so  I made one last leisurely lap around the stadium then headed for the subway.

Thanks, Berlin, for the most amazing track and field experience  of my life.

Thanks to all the coaches, shop owners, concession stand workers, ushers and and everyone else I ran across on my trip, including my favorite bouncer. Without fail, they did their best to make up for my ignorance of their language by communicating with me in English.  I will never forget their kindness.

And thanks to all the athletes who took the time to chat. I was at the bottom of the media food chain at the Euros, so by the time they got to me in the sweltering mixed zone some had been answering questions non-stop for an hour. I’m sure all they wanted to do was to get the heck of there to celebrate or commiserate with their friends and family, and they were under no obligation to talk to me.  But they were so friendly and so polite, it makes a guy think that maybe he fell in love with just the right sport.

 

 

 

 

A sweaty and glorious night in Berlin

Have you ever watched the video of the men’s shot competition at the 1988 Olympics? The one where Randy Barnes throws 22.39m on round six to take the lead,  then Ulf Timmerman answers with 22.47m to grab the gold. That throw of Ulf’s is famous (at least among throws nerds) because he raises his fist in triumph even before he sees where the throw lands.

There is one other memorable aspect of that video. The stands are almost completely deserted. The average Saturday morning freshman football game in the US  attracts more spectators than showed up at the stadium in Seoul that day to witness maybe the greatest shot competition ever.

Last night, at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, the situation was a bit different.

One reason was that the gentleman pictured above, the incomparable Robert Harting, was making his final appearance as a member of the German national team. He has a couple more competitions on his schedule before he hangs up his throwing shoes, but this was his last night representing the Fatherland, and it meant a lot to him and it meant a lot to the fans packed into that end of the stadium.

Here’s a video I took when Robert was introduced last night. The quality is not so good, but the sound is what matters. Take a listen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ftI7Q-g9Kg

Compare that to the sound of crickets that probably greeted Ulf’s winning throw in Seoul, and you’ll understand why every single thrower I ‘ve spoken with at these European Championships loves competing in Germany.

And if Robert’s fairwell appearance wasn’t enough to get folks fired up, just a few meters away in that same end of the stadium, the 2015 women’s shot World Champion Christina Schwanitz was competing as well.

As much as the Germans love Robert, I doubt many considered him a candidate to win the men’s discus title last night. After four years spent battling knee injuries, a bronze medal finish was probably the best that Dee Harting could hope for.

Not so with Schwanitz. After taking off the 2017 season while giving birth to twins (Dear God, please let her move to the US so that I can coach those children some day), Christina has returned to twenty-meter form, and in the absence of Hungarian rival Anita Marton, appeared to be a lock to win the gold.

And if that still wasn’t enough to get everyone excited, there were Germans in contention in the men’s long jump and decathlon, which took place concurrently with the throws.

Hence the noise. Hence the madness.

Surprisingly, Schwanitz was unable to feed off the  energy of the crowd to produce a big throw. She tossed right around 19.00m in warmups, opened with 19.19m and never improved.

But, for most of the competition, none of her competitors appeared capable of surpassing her. Poland’s Paulina Guba opened with 18.77m but did not add to that over the first five rounds.

Aliyona Dubitskaya of  Belarus pounded away at the high 18.00m range the entire competition, eventually settling for a best of 18.81m in round five.

The oppressive heat that has settled over much of Europe this summer seemed to take the life out of most of the putters. They had, after all, been through qualification in that same heat the day before. And on this night, they had taken their early warmups under a blazing sun at the throwing area outside the stadium.

Maybe they were all exhausted, and Christina would walk away unhappy with a subpar performance but happy to have won in front of an adoring crowd.

Then, things got a little nutty.

The Polish mojo that has been wreaking havoc in the men’s throws (so far, Poles have taken first and second in the men’s shot and hammer) appeared and lifted Klaudia Kardasz to an U23 national record of 18.48m.

Guba must have gotten a whiff of it as well. She stepped in as the final competitor with a chance to unseat Schwanitz and promptly…well…unseated her with a throw of 19.33m.

Here is a vid of Christina’s final throw. Again, the quality is pretty awful but it will give you an idea of the noise level in that stadium.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa8P6RIlFEs

Schwanitz could manage only 18.98m on her final attempt, and as Guba celebrated another triumph for the Polish throws crew…

…a disappointed crowd turned its full attention to the men’s disc.

Humid air. No wind. Enclosed stadium.

These are not the conditions which generally produce big discus throws. And for the first couple of rounds, it looked like anyone who could somehow reach 66.00m would have a good chance at winning.

Apostolos Parellus of Cyprus must love him some dead air, as he opened with a PB of 63.62m. No one else was close to their best.

Daniel Stahl, second at the 2017 Worlds opened with a foul. Andrius Gudzius, the defending World Champion started with, for him, a pedestrian 65.75m.

Gerd Kanter, who had hit the automatic qualifying mark of 64.00m on his first throw the day before, could manage only 59.30m in round one.

Robert, meanwhile, hit 61.09m, a distance that was not likely to buy him the full six throws.

In round two, Gudzius fell to 62.89m but maintained his lead when Stahl fouled a big one—at least 67.00m.

Robert pleased the crowd if not himself with a 63.45m toss, which at least prevented him making an early exit from the competition.

Stahl, facing an early exit himself, went 64.20m in round three. Gudzius answered with 67.19m, an impressive display of horsepower in these conditions.

For a moment in round four, it looked like Robert might be able through sheer toughness and force of will to seize a medal. His 64.33m put him into second place.

The moment did not last.

Stahl, exhibiting his own reserves of grit, blasted one 68.23m to take the lead and knock Robert into third. Gudzius replied to Stahl with another big toss, this one 67.66m.

Then, in round five, Lucas Weisshaidinger of Austria, who had struggled mightily in the qualifying, came through with a toss of 65.14m to oust Robert once and for all from medal contention.

A final round 64.55m from Sweden’s Simon Pettersson and a 64.34m by Kanter pushed Robert further back in the standings.

Here is Robert’s final throw as a member of the German national team.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj2VksB-yJs

Meanwhile, Stahl and Gudzius still had to settle the matter of who would go home with the gold.

Daniel fouled his final attempt, so Gudzuis entered the ring needing to surpass 68.23m.

Gudzius is a large man, and he is remarkably fast for his size. Sometimes, he seems a bit out of control, and this may be why he struggled in qualifying. He did not hit the auto mark until his third toss on Tuesday.

But when he hits one right, he generates an astonishing level of power. It took that kind of power to launch a 68.46m final throw for the win.

Afterwards, the competitors were exhausted, drenched in sweat, and very grateful to have experienced a competition in this environment.

Alin Alexandru Firfirica, a twenty-three-year-old Romanian who finished seventh was totally spent.

This European Championships was his first major international meeting at the senior level (he was European U23 champion in 2015) and the experience was a bit overwhelming.

”The stadium is great,” he said.  “And I am in good shape, but today I was tired. It is hot! I start with fifty-eight meters! Every time they stop us when a race starts. It was disturbing. I try to ignore because I don’t have anything else to do. My next meet will be throws only meet here in Germany. It will be fantastic! I hope there to throw sixty-six meters again. Here was hard because we don’t have wind; with wind is possible to throw sixty-seven meters.”

Alin recently wrapped up his studies, and is excited about his future as a thrower.

What did he study?

”Sports, of course!”

Simon Pettersson, who entered the meet with a PB of 65.84m and finished fourth with is sixth round 64.55m effort, said that he loved the energy in the stadium.

“It was very fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable, kind of like Worlds last year. I even like when they run the 200 and everybody is like ‘whoa!’It gives me energy. Sometimes I get too hyped!”

That was apparent tonight, as Simon fouled four of six throws, once literally falling down out of the front of the ring. But, his ability to regain his composure and drill a near PB in the final round bodes well for his future in meets of this caliber.

Daniel Stahl, the Swedish giant, was exhausted, proud, and defiant after the competition.

I asked him how he was able to keep his cool sitting on two fouls going into round three.

“It was mental strength.  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. This was great atmoshpere. Germany is really good to track and field. It was a great audience, great people. I really Like Germany. Now, I prepare to win in Doha.”

Unknown to me, these European Championships will also be the final international competition for Gerd Kanter, one of the true gentlemen of the sport.

Though the attention of the crowd was understandably focused on Robert, Gerd was happy to have made his farewell in this stadium.

”As expected, the environment was very good, I remember from 2009, and today everybody focused on the discus. When I was planning my retirement I wanted to have it here. Next year at Doha, I don’t think will be very exciting. This was where I wanted to have my last Championships.”

I told Gerd that the first time I ‘d seen him throw was in Zurich in 2005, and asked him if he remembered being overtaken by Virgilius Aleena in the final round there.

“Yes, but he fouled it! The winner got a nice watch, and he got it. He still owes me that watch.”

“We had just came from Helsinki, the World Championships. I was leading until last round there, too, and he threw a championship record to beat me!”

As long as we were on the subject of the ones that got away, I asked him about the 2012 Olympic Games where he came within one discus length of taking a second consecutive gold medal.

“It was reallyemotional,” he recalled. “But it wasn’t like losing a gold medal, it was like winning a bronze medal. Compared  to Beijing, I was not the favorite. And it was first time I set my season best at a major championships, so I am very proud of that bronze medal.”

The last sweaty giant I spoke with was Lukas Weisshaidinger, who was about as happy as a man on the verge of heat exhaustion can be.

 

“It was my first time at European Championships, so to come home with a medal, I’m extremely happy,” he told me. “My whole family is here, so this is an awesome moment.”

Lukas had struggled in the qualifying rounds, going Foul, 59.48m, and then finally 62.26m which got him in the final. I asked him how he had been able to get his act together after almost failing to qualify.

“This was a new day. And also, I know that Alekna once placed eleventh in qualification and ended up with gold medal, so I knew I could make a medal today.”

Lukas also credited the atmosphere in the stadium for elevating his performance.

“It was awesome! They clap for everyone, not just the Germans. And there  were a lot of Austrian fans. That gave me power!”

I couldn’t resist asking Lucas how he had developed his rather unique setup at the start of his throw. If you’ve never seen it, he has his left foot back like Tom Walsh in the shot, and he winds the disc very high before beginning his entry.

“I’m not the biggest guy,” he explained. “Or the tallest guy, so I have to make something different, so we try this.”

Is his setup an attempt to increase the path of acceleration? Does it have something to do with creating a certain orbit of the disc?

“That I cannot tell you. It is top secret.”

Not wanting to offend a man that beefy, especially at the happiest moment of his life, I changed the subject and inquired about the future. Was he thinking ahead to Doha?

“It is really hard with the World Championships in October, then followed by the Olympic Games. It is really hard to make a perfect plan for those two competitions.”

I have asked a few coaches recently how they plan to handle their training schedule next year with the Worlds coming so late. But talking to Lucas, I realized that it wasn’t just next year, but the following year as well (when everyone will want to peak for the Olympics) that will be thrown off by the odd schedule.

Torsten Lönnfors, coach of Chris Harting, told me that Chris will be in an exceptionally difficult situation as he is required to put in four weeks of police training at the end of each season. So, if he competes in the 2019 Worlds in October then takes a break then has to do his four weeks with the police, that makes for a very late start for his Olympic preparation.

But those are matters for people much smarter than me to figure out.

This was a night to celebrate giant, sweaty men who devote their lives to throwing things far.

Speaking of which, after all was quiet I stood with a group of journalists waiting for a final word with Robert Harting. But the hour was late, and I had a long train ride ahead of me, so after a while I gave up and began the long walk up the stadium steps towards the exit.

And there he was. Signing autographs, Surrounded by fans. Happy and sad and probably wishing that this long, humid Berlin night would never end.

It’s not so simple, this qualification business

 

Tuesday morning at the European Athletics Championships featured an embarrassment of riches for throws fans. Two rings full of women shot putters vying for the automatic qualification mark of 17.20m that would advance them to Wednesday’s final. And, running concurrently with the women’s shot, two rounds of men’s discus featuring some of the best throwers in the world, among them 2016 Olympic Champion Chris Harting and 2017 World Champion Andrius Gudzius. The qualification line for the men’s disc was 64.00m, which many of these athletes had thrown in previous competitions. But, as it soon became apparent, 64.00m can seem awfully far if something knocks you off your rhythm. The early hour. The unusually hot conditions (Germany, like much of the rest of Europe, is in the middle of an historic heat wave). An unusually fast or slow throwing surface.

Some made qualification look easy.

Christina Schwanitz, much to the delight of the crowd (as she is German and the favorite to snag the gold here) went 18.83m on her first attempt. Thank you, and good day.

Daniel Stahl, the silver medalist at last year’s World Championships in London,  also launched his first throw well past the qualification line (it turned out to be 67.07m) raised his arms in triumph and headed off to rest for Wednesday’s final.

On his way out, I asked Daniel if he generally takes something off a first round throw in order to avoid fouling.

“No,” he replied. “Always 100 percent.”

This approach seems to suit the big man’s personality. Stahl is the kind of guy who, if you were a kid, would be your favorite uncle. Large. Easy going. Always smiling.  Not the kind of person whose confidence would be ruined by a first round foul.

For some, though, it was not so simple.

Poland’s 2015 World Champion Piotr Malachowski would appear to be cut from the same mold as Stahl.  He comes across as very even-keeled, and has been through many, many qualification rounds at major competitions.

Somehow, though, after warming up at 65.00m, Piotr simply could not find his timing when the throws counted. He walked out on his first attempt (it looked to be about 57.00m), caged his second, and misfired badly on his third, ending up without a mark and without an invitation to the finals.

Afterwards, he seemed perplexed.

“My shape today was very good,” he said. “My practice throws were good, then…I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Piotr seemed ready to shake off this experience though. When I asked if he planned to continue throwing through the Tokyo Games, he replied, “Of course. It is my dream. A gold medal!”

While Piotr was suffering his inexplicable meltdown on one end of the stadium, two young shot putters came away from their first ever qualifcation rounds at a senior international competition smiling and utterly delighted to have made the final.

One, British Champion Amelia Strickler, threw a PB of 17.31 on her second attempt.

”I ‘m so excited!” she said afterward. “It was amazing being out there because this is such a big venue, and that’s what you want. You want the big stage. Even though the stadium wasn’t quite full, you could still feel the atmosphere. I can’t wait for the final!”

Like Amelia, twenty-year-old Alina Kenzel surpassed the qualifying line on her second attempt.

Her throw of 17.46m was the seventh best among qualifiers.

She told me afterwards that she was “very excited because it was my first big international event. I was very nervous at the first attempt, but the second it was like ‘okay just do your thing just like training’ and it was the standard for the finals!”

“After my first throw, everybody was saying ‘Alina go on!’ I was like okay,okay, keep going, keep going. Then, it was like boom! I ‘m done, so now I can go to the hotel and have some rest and tomorrow the final.”

Another competitor who seemed just as excited by his success in qualification was the great veteran Gerd Kanter. He threw 64.18m on his first attempt and was positively giddy after.

”I’m old,” he joked. “So, in this heat I have to do it on the first throw. Out there, we were like chickens in ovens.”

After all the success he’s had, including winning the gold at the Beijing Olympics, Gerd still prepares conscientiously for qualification days.

“I would say the qualification procedure is most difficult at these competitions. If you are in the final, it is already like regular competition, but in qualification, you only get two warm-up throws, it is the early morning, it’s not comfortable. So, in training, we practice making a safety throw.”

“We call it a safety throw because you don’t need to go full out. You don’t need 67.00m or 68.00m. The line is 64.00m, so that’s what you need. So, in a safety throw you take less risks. You are not going to go as far back in your backswing, you just make it very simple to avoid errors. One part of training for a championships is we always make two or three throws where the coach says ‘Okay, you need to do a safety throw.’ So not a maximum effort, but you must throw maybe 63.00m.”

The most surprising moment of this qualification day came when defending Olympic champion Chris Harting failed to advance.

Chris showed that he was in good shape two weeks ago by winning the German Championships with a toss of 66.98m, and most observers would have considered him a candidate to challenge Stahl and Gudzius for the title here, in the city where he lives and trains.

But, one chink in Chris’s armor is that his natural release point often sends the discus down the right side of the sector, and depending on the type of the cage, he sometimes has trouble getting off an unimpeded throw.

His coach, Torsten Lönnfors, told me later that the type of cage used for this year’s  European Championships makes it difficult for Chris to throw in his natural slot because it is shorter than cages normally used in international competitions, with the front support standard jutting out in just the spot where Chris’s throws often travel. Notice the difference between the cage in the photo above at a different competition, and the one below in a photo from yesterday’s qualification round.

I highlighted the front standard to make it easier to see. Torsten told me that they had tried (and apparently succeeded) in practice to get Chris comfortable throwing with this type of cage, and in warmups he was able to throw a nice, clean 65.00m toss. But, Olympic champions are humans, too, and maybe once that first competition throw ricocheted off the cage…maybe all of a sudden throwing in your home town with all eyes on you and the music turned loud each time you entered the ring…maybe it just got to be too much.

After three throws off the cage resulted in three fouls and a humiliating exit from the competition, Chris had to face a very disappointed German media.

Afterwards, he graciously spoke with me for a few moments. Heartbroken, he struggled for words to describe how this had come to pass.

”It took less than 63 meters to qualify,” he said, shaking his head in amazement. “I can throw that from a stand.”

Just one of those days?

“Yes,” he replied. “That’s a good way to put it. Just one of those days.”