"In The Ring with Coach V" by Vésteinn Hafsteinsson with D. McQuaid. #10: Daniel's Journey
Daniel Ståhl was nearly unbeatable in 2021. Besides becoming the first “Swedish Viking” to win an Olympic gold medal, he averaged 68.41m in each of his nineteen competitions, and his top throw of 71.40m was the best in the world. He lost only one time--to his training partner Simon Petterssen--and that was on a day when I thought he might break the world record! (More on this later.)
Some people probably look at Daniel and think, “Of course nobody can beat him, he is the biggest and strongest guy out there!”
And that is true. If the real Swedish Vikings had a guy like Daniel fighting for them they might have conquered the world. He looks like he could ransack a village by himself.
But there is more to being a great discus thrower than just size and strength.
Daniel was already big and strong when I started training him ten years ago. But it took nearly a decade of hard work and overcoming many difficulties for him to grow into the athlete and person he is today.
As a young man, Daniel was very insecure and self-conscious about his size. He did not like school, and at some point he learned to fit in by acting out. When I met him, he had a reputation as a wild kid who had crazy energy that he could not control. He was the kind of kid who, when traveling with his club to a competition, might throw a piece of furniture out the hotel window or set off the sprinklers. His behavior was such that my wife Anna, who was a coach for a throwing group that Daniel was part of in those days, warned me not to take him on.
But I don’t mind the crazy guys, if they have talent--and it was clear that Daniel had unique physical gifts. What I needed to do was to help him channel his tremendous energy into training, and teach him how to be a professional.
For Daniel, this was not an easy process. He grew up near Stockholm and loved living at home, loved playing ice hockey with his buddies and hunting and fishing with his father. Becoming a professional thrower meant spending more and more time at our facility in Växjö and on training camps abroad. It also meant learning how to fit in with a group of professionals that included the defending Olympic Champion, Gerd Kanter.
Daniel’s usual way of fitting in--acting goofy--did not work here, and for a while Gerd was very hard on him.
By 2014, Daniel was living in Växjö full time and showing great promise as a discus thrower. That spring, he threw a huge PB of 66.89m in California. That throw got him a lot of notice--before the day was over, he had been contacted by nearly one hundred journalists. But all the attention and the new expectations that came with it made Daniel feel even more isolated. Sitting alone at night in his apartment in Växjö, he missed his friends and family terribly.
It is easy to think that everyone wants to be famous. Gerd Kanter was that way. Even though he was a poor country boy from Estonia, he could always picture himself as a world famous athlete. At first, he thought it would be as a basketball player. Later, he realized that discus throwing was his ticket. When he started winning medals and people started recognizing him all over Estonia, he was happy. He liked being a celebrity.
But Daniel was different. For a long time, the pressure that came with success made him miserable.
He struggled a lot with loneliness and depression during the winter of 2014 to 2015, and in March he decided to quit.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he told me. “I’ll go back to Stockholm and get a regular job.”
Then, the next morning he called me from our practice facility.
“Aren’t you coming to training?” he asked.
“I thought you quit.”
“I did,” he replied. “But, I changed my mind.”
So he stuck with it, but we spent years riding the roller coaster. He threw poorly for most of 2015, but rallied to take fifth at the World Championships in Beijing. That raised expectations for the 2016 Olympics, but he threw badly there.
Even after his breakthrough at the 2017 Worlds where he finished second to Andrius Gudžius, Daniel continued to struggle mentally and socially. The crisis came in the fall of 2018, not long after he won the silver medal at the European Championships (he threw 68.23m and again lost to Gudžius).
He was terribly unhappy, and his mood and behavior began to have a negative impact on the group. Don’t get me wrong, Daniel has always been an extremely nice person. For the entire time I have been working with him, he has come up to me after every single practice, shook my hand and thanked me for being his coach. Often, when we are out in public, people will come up to him to chat and ask to take a picture and he is always kind, always happy to oblige them.
But when the best thrower in your group is not happy and does not buy into your process, that is a problem.
Finally, just at the point where it seemed we would have to part ways for good, Daniel was able to turn things around. He accepted the strange combination of loneliness and unwanted attention that comes with being a celebrated athlete and rededicated himself to his training. He had his best off-season ever in the winter of 2018 to 2019, and has been nearly unbeatable ever since.
For the 2019 season, his average in his top ten competitions was 69.94m. That kind of consistency made him the big favorite to become World Champion in Doha that fall, so anything less than a gold medal would be considered by many to be a failure. It would be a very big deal in Sweden for him to win the Worlds, and the old Daniel might not have stood up under that kind of pressure. But this was not the old Daniel. He for sure felt the strain of those expectations, and he struggled with his rhythm in the final. His winning throw of 67.59m was well below his top ten average, but against the world’s best he produced the three farthest throws of the competition. And ever since then, he has found a way to answer any challenge.
The Covid season of 2020 was a new and unexpected situation. The Tokyo Olympics were Daniel’s to win. He was twenty-eight years old, battle-tested, in great physical and mental shape. Then, right as he was on the brink of reaching the pinnacle of our sport came all this uncertainty. First, the Olympics were delayed. Then, for months it seemed like maybe they would not happen at all.
Daniel handled this situation with great focus and maturity. I reminded our group all the time that our job was to throw the shot put and the discus and to forget about the things we could not control. Daniel set a great example for our group. By 2020, he was at the point where throwing in the biggest meets against the best guys with lots of people in the stands was his favorite thing, and it bothered him a bit when we were not able to do that. He never found his feel for throwing as well as he had in 2019, but still took care of business and produced a top ten average of 69.26m and a world-leading throw of 71.37m.
He trained with great dedication over the winter of 2020-2021 even with the Olympics still an uncertainty, and once again he won every important competition including finally the Olympics and then the Diamond League final.
Here is the story of his only loss this season. It was a small meet that we put on here in Växjö on May 29th. The conditions were excellent--maybe seventy degrees Fahrenheit with just the right wind. I could tell in warmups that Daniel was feeling something magical. He threw a static-start, non-reverse throw seventy meters. Then, he threw seventy-two meters on a non-reverse throw with a full windup. His first full throw with a reverse was 72.60m. I called the meet promoter and told him to get the doping authorities here right away--I thought Daniel might throw seventy-seven meters, and it would not count as a world record if they were not present. But, when the competition started, he got a little too excited and had trouble staying in the ring. One of his fouls was 73.83m, but his best mark ended up being 69.11m, and Simon beat him with a huge PB of 69.48m, which started him off on his own magical season.
Looking ahead, I think that Daniel will have more days like that one in Växjö. Carrying those Olympic expectations around for two years was not so easy, and now that he is shed of them I believe he will be more likely to throw free and loose.
As always, he is big and strong enough to throw very far. We have a couple of technical points to work through. He needs to keep his chest facing the sector longer as he begins his sprint to the middle. This will delay his high point a bit and allow him to stay on both feet longer through his release. Mainly though, throwing farther will be a matter of finding his best feeling for the throw.
However things turn out for Daniel over this next Olympic cycle, I really believe that someday, when I look back on my career as a coach, my favorite memory will be Daniel’s journey. To see him mature the way he has over the past few years has been immensely gratifying, and I can now say for sure that he will be a success at whatever career he chooses after he is done throwing, and that when the time comes he will make a great husband and father.
One day, a year or so ago, I asked Fanny Roos who was the person in the world she admired most. Her answer?
Here are some statistics from Daniel's 2021 season:
Competed in 20 meets
Best Performance Discus: 71.40m
Average of all 19 legal meets: 68.41m
Average of Top 10 meets: 69.40m
PS: 2 meets over 70m, 6 meets over 69m, 12 over 68m
World leading mark for the 6th year in a row 71.40m
Won Oslo DL 68.65m, Stockholm DL 68.64m, Brussel DL 69.31m, Zurich DL Final 66.49m
Won OG in Tokyo 68.90m
Swedish Champion 67.04m
Won Finnkampen 69.09m
World List: 1
European List: 1
World Athletics Ranking: 1, 1453 points