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.