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.

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