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.