Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport and himself a four-time Olympian, has agreed to share regular updates from the Tokyo Olympics.and beyond. Vésteinn will share insights on training, stories from his long career as a coach and athlete, and observations on the state of the sport.
In this piece, Vésteinn provides an inside account of his group's unprecedented success in Tokyo.
Things do not always go so well at major championships.
I had four athletes qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. Kim Christensen, the Danish national shot put champion, came into London with a PB of 20.06m. He threw 19.13m in qualification and finished 27th. Brett Morse, the British discus thrower, had a PB of 66.06m. He threw 58.18m and finished 35th.
Märt Israel of Estonia hurt himself during our final training session. He was straining to get off a big throw to have confirmation that he would do well in the competition, and he pulled a groin muscle. I should have ended that training session earlier, but I didn’t. Märt threw 60.34m in qualification and finished 25th. His PB at the time was 66.98m.
My last thrower to compete in London was Gerd Kanter, the defending Olympic Champion in the discus. Gerd was in the second group for qualification, and he opened with a throw into the cage. His second attempt was 59.72m. Keep in mind, Gerd’s PB was 73.38.
During the competition, I was sitting in the stands with my good friends from Estonia, Raul Rebane and Hans Üürike. We had worked together for years as part of Gerd’s team, but after Gerd’s second throw, I could not stand sitting with them any longer. They were freaking out, which was making me irritated, so I took a trip to the toilet to calm my nerves.
And I will never forget, standing alone in the toilet at the London Olympics and thinking, “Ok, Gerd will take his third throw, then he will be out and all of my guys will have screwed up and my career will be over.”
I put on a brave face when I returned to the stands, and assured Raul and Hans that Gerd would qualify on his third throw. “He always does,” I reminded them.
Somehow, this made Raul and Hans even more nervous.
“How can you be so cool?” Hans demanded.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just think the sun will always come up tomorrow.”
Luckily, Gerd threw 66.39m on his third attempt in qualifying, and then hit a season’s best 68.03m in the final to take the bronze medal. So, the sun did come up, and my career continued.
Men’s Discus Qualification
Daniel started the weekend for us by putting both his warm up throws into the cage. His technique was pretty good on both of them, though, so when we spoke between warm ups and his first throw in the competition, I just said, “Move one foot to the left in the circle when you set up, and get those throws out of the cage.”
He qualified on his first attempt, with a nice, easy throw of 66.12m.
Daniel celebrated to himself a little bit after that throw, and I think he had been a little nervous. It is great to come into a competition as World Champion and the best thrower in the world all season, but when everyone expects you to win, when anything less than a gold medal would be considered a failure, you have a lot to lose. And sometimes, it is hard not to think about that.
Simon, on the other hand, came into Tokyo with nothing to lose. He is still young and developing as a thrower, so really the 2024 Olympics should be his time. He has had a great season and had beaten all of the medal favorites at least once, but still, making the final and finishing in the top five or six would have been a successful Games for him.
He was in group B for qualification, and he missed badly on his first attempt. It went 60.62m. His second attempt was technically better, but he topped it and it went only 59.47m.
I always remind my athletes that they have three attempts to qualify, so there is no need to freak out if they don’t make it on the first two. As mentioned above, Gerd Kanter often did not qualify until his third attempt.
So, I tell them not to worry, and Simon apparently listened. He took a little bathroom break before his third try then made a nice, rhythmical throw of 64.18m to qualify.
Women’s Shot Put Qualification
There was some drama regarding Fanny that happened in our final throwing session in Fukuoka. I did not mention this when I explained our final training sessions in my last post, so I will tell you about it now.
On July 26th, Fanny had one of the best throwing sessions of her life. That, I did write about in the last post. But then, on July 27th we had our final training session before leaving for Tokyo, and at the very end with maybe five throws remaining, she hurt herself.
This was a technical session where we were working on getting her right leg out early at the back so that she could sweep wide around a strong left hip. She was not throwing for distance. I already told the story about Märt hurting himself trying to build confidence in his final session before the London Olympics. I learned from that, and now before a big competition we focus on controlled, rhythmical throwing--no screaming and flying over the toeboard for extra distance.
In that final session, she took five standing throws, five half turns, somewhere between five and ten non-reverse throws, and we were working our way through fifteen-to-twenty full throws with a reverse when she felt something in her knee.
Fanny had never had an issue with her knee. She had never really been injured before in her life. Earlier this season, we had to adjust her training a bit because of a sore groin muscle, but that is the normal stuff that throwers deal with.
This felt different, and we immediately had her examined by our doctors and physiotherapist.
They did an MRI and saw no serious damage, just some inflammation in her meniscus, but warned that the next two days would determine whether or not she would be able to compete in the qualification. If the knee swelled up too much, she was out.
Fanny showed a brave face through all this. After the MRI, she told me that all she needed was “an aspirin and some water.”
She did not have much swelling over the next couple of days, so we decided to go ahead and do a wakeup call (a few drills and some throws) the morning of the qualification. She always does this to prime her nervous system the day of a meet, but this time how she felt during the wakeup call would dictate whether or not she could compete at all.
I had to be at the discus qualification while Fanny did her wakeup call, but I told her before I left that I was confident she would throw nineteen meters and be ready to compete. It was pouring rain when she went to the practice track. Our physiotherapist went with her, and I was almost right--she threw 18.90m.
Then, in the competition that night, she threw 19.01m on her first attempt and advanced to the final.
Men’s Discus Final
Both Daniel and Simon looked fine during warm ups. In the qualification round of major championships, you only get two warm up throws inside the stadium, but for a final round it depends on the head official. In this case, everyone was allowed three warm up throws. Daniel and Simon each did one non-reverse throw with a static start, then two full throws with a reverse. Daniel was in the sixty-six or sixty-seven meter range with his non-reverse, then around sixty-eight meters with his full throws. Simon was around sixty-five meters for all of his warm up throws.
I was happy because they both did well on the “one thing” I had asked them to focus on. I wrote about this concept in my last post. When preparing for a big competition, it is best to give an athlete a simple technical cue as a point of focus. Concentrating on that cue can allow them to throw with smoothness and rhythm instead of just slamming down on the gas pedal. Going into the Games, Daniel’s cue was to keep his chest facing the throwing field as long as possible when he began his sprint across the ring so he could create more linear drive. Simon’s was to get his right side moving as early as possible at the start of his throw.
Both executed those technical points well, which was exactly what I wanted to see. The fact that the discus also flew far was a bonus.
Simon opened with 61.39m, and Daniel threw one straight up that went 63.72m. They came over to talk afterwards, and I told both of them to stick to the plan--focus on their cue one throw at a time.
Simon hit his second attempt really well and reached 66.58m. That’s a huge throw for an up-and-coming young man in the Olympic final, two meters farther than he’d ever thrown in a championships.
He came over to the stands after that throw and I asked him how he felt.
“Good,” he told me. “And there is much more coming!”
Daniel’s second attempt went 68.90m, which was also a huge throw, the fourth best in Olympic history and farther than either Gerd Kanter or Jürgen Schult had thrown when they won gold. It was also 1.5 meters farther than his winning throw at the 2019 World Championships, which shows how much he has grown as a competitor.
That year, Daniel’s average in his top ten competitions before the Worlds was 69.94m. He threw 67.59m in the final to win. This year, Daniel’s top ten average before Tokyo was 69.06m, and the pressure on him was much more intense because this was the Olympic Games and he was the big favorite coming in.
When you are new to throwing at competitions like the European Championships, the World Championships or the Olympic Games, it is natural to look around at the warm up track and see Piotr Małachowski and Robert Harting and ask yourself, “Do I belong here with these guys?” That is one kind of pressure.
Daniel struggled with that at the 2014 European Championships, the 2015 Worlds, and the 2016 Olympics before he broke through and won the silver medal at the 2017 Worlds.
By 2019 though, he was the best and most consistent discus thrower in the world, expected to win pretty much every competition, and that brings a different kind of pressure. I was talking to Mondo Duplantis’s father about this after Mondo won the gold here in Tokyo. When you carry the expectations of your country and anything less than a gold medal is considered a failure, that’s a lot to deal with. We saw how Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles struggled here at the Games. And less people probably noticed, but Johannes Vetter struggled in javelin qualifying even though he has thrown over ninety meters at seven different competitions this year.
So, being the big favorite is not so easy, and I am very proud of the way Daniel managed himself.
After the 68.90m, I told Daniel he had a medal for sure, so why not just push it a little bit more? I was thinking maybe he could get the Olympic record of 69.89m set by Virgilijus Alekna in 2004. He did push it more on his third throw and just missed it. He generated a ton of power, but threw it straight up so it only went 65.16m. But this was my favorite throw of his on this day because he gave it a huge effort and came very close to making a big, big throw.
After the second round, I thought that the only guy who could catch Daniel was Kristjan Čeh, but he is very young and was struggling to find his form in his first Olympics and had to fight to make the top eight and get six throws.
After three rounds, Lukas Weißhaidinger was in second with 67.07m, and Simon was in third with his 66.58m.
In round four, Kristjan got off a nice throw (66.05m) while Simon got back on track with 66.24m. Daniel went 66.10m.
In round five, Kristjan threw 66.62m to knock Simon into fourth, but that throw ended up being disallowed. Teams are able to ask for a video review of certain throws if they think the officials have made a mistake, so at championship meets I always have to have contact with the head of the Swedish team as that is the person who has to make the protest. I was sitting with our head coach, Karin Torneklint, there in the stands, and after Kristjan’s throw, several people who were watching the competition on television texted to tell her that it looked like Kristjan had fouled. She approached the video booth and asked them to take another look, but just as they began to review it, Simon got in the ring and smashed a throw of 67.39m. He was now in second place, and Kristjan’s 66.62m did not matter, so our head coach said, “Never mind!” and let the matter drop.
The review people did not drop it though, and after reviewing the film took away Kristjan’s throw.
What can I say about Simon’s ability to compete? He told me later that he got crazy when Kristjan knocked him out of third, and Simon thrives on adrenaline so getting crazy was good for him.
The climate in the stadium was like a sauna--humid with dead air--so 67.39m was a huge throw.
Daniel had his second best throw in round five, 67.03m. Neither he nor Simon improved in round six.
Lukas fouled his final two throws, and he ended up with the bronze even though Matthew Denny had an amazing day and almost took over third place with his throw of 67.02m in round six.
We did not get back to the village until 2:00am because of drug testing and media stuff, but when we did the entire Swedish team, athletes from all sports, were there to greet us. Soccer and handball had the night off, so they were able to watch the discus competition, and everyone was very happy for us.
Simon pointed out that the Covid restrictions probably made us a more united team than we would have been at a normal Olympics. Swedish athletes from all the sports were together at the training camp in Fukuoka, and because our movements were restricted, we spent most of our free time in a large communal room playing ping pong and video games and Yahtzee. As a result, we developed a group dynamic that I’ve never experienced before at an Olympic Games.
And it looks like the guys may have kickstarted the Swedish team. After the first couple of days, Sweden had some disappointments in different sports, and some journalists were already predicting this would be the worst Olympic Games ever for Sweden.
But after the discus final, things went much better. The swimmer Sarah Sjöström told me that watching Daniel and Simon on television got her pumped up and helped her win a silver medal in the fifty-meter freestyle race. Overall, Sweden ended up with three golds and six silver medals--a pretty nice showing.
Women’s Shot Put Final
Normally, we would have done a light lifting workout with Fanny after qualification to get her ready for the final the next day, but we could not take a chance of aggravating her knee, so we skipped it.
My big goal for Fanny was for her to make the top eight in the final, and with her knee I thought she probably had a fifty/fifty chance.
The final was held in the morning, and the stadium was already very hot. She struggled to find her feel during warm ups. Luckily, the officials let them take as many as they wanted, so Fanny took six throws, which seemed to help her find a bit of rhythm.
On her first two throws, she went 17.99m and 18.02m. That’s not so good for someone with a PB of 19.34m, but coming into this Olympics, her best throw ever in an outdoor championships was 18.01m. This was the first time she’d ever advanced to the final of an outdoor championships, and considering the situation with her knee, I was prepared to be happy with anything over eighteen meters.
Then, on her third throw she hit 18.91m to move from eleventh to seventh place and earn three more attempts.
She finished with a foul, then 18.72m and 18.76m, and I was very, very happy with her performance.
And much of the credit has to go to the team of professionals we had supporting us in Japan. Thanks to the Swedish Federation and the Swedish Olympic Committee we had our nutritionist, our physiotherapist, our sports psychologist, and two doctors with us the entire time. They made sure that the athletes were properly cared for, and were ready to help when Fanny was injured. We could not have achieved what we did without them.
The country of Estonia suffered terribly during the Second World War and for decades afterwards as they were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet bloc. Estonia finally achieved independence in 1991, but life under Russian domination had been hard and many Estonians were left feeling bitter and worried about the future.
Raul Rebane, who I mentioned earlier, was a sports journalist in Estonia for many years, and he believed that sports could provide a way to lift people’s spirits during difficult times. As Raul saw it, what Estonia needed was a sports hero to bring people together and give them pride and optimism about the future.
Then, in the year 2000, he met a failed basketball player named Gerd Kanter.
Gerd also threw the discus, but he was nineteen years old and showed such little promise as a thrower that no Estonian coach would take over his training. Raul saw something in this young man, though, and for no logical reason started to believe that maybe he could be the one to help lift up his country.
While in Sydney covering the 2000 Olympics, Raul happened to be seated near some Icelandic journalists. He asked them to recommend a discus coach, and because I am from Iceland, they knew of me and gave him my name. He called me and asked me to come to Estonia to meet Gerd. I did, and for no logical reason agreed to become his coach.
Eight years later, Gerd won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
Later, there was a huge celebration in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. The streets were packed with people, and after the ceremonies ended, we were walking through the crowd when a young man stopped me and asked me to step aside with him. He took me to meet two old ladies in babushkas who had come to the celebration. They looked poor, and at their age had clearly suffered through the hard years of the war and the Soviet occupation. The young man introduced me, and each of the ladies handed me a single red rose.
It was their way of expressing thanks for my helping Gerd to win a gold medal. At that moment, I knew that Raul was right about the power of sports to unite people and bring them joy. All of Estonia seemed exhilarated and bound together by their pride over Gerd’s achievement.
And now, thirteen years later, I feel the same thing happening.
Counting the European Championships, World Championships, and Olympic Games, these were the 18th and 19th medals won by athletes I have coached. Even better, with Fanny’s performance considered as well, this was the first Olympic Games where all of my athletes achieved all that I hoped they would.
That fills me with professional pride, but even better is the outpouring of affection I have felt in the past few days.
I have been overwhelmed with messages of congratulation from former colleagues, mentors, and opponents from all over the world.
Mac Wilkins contacted me, and so did a former discus thrower from Paraguay that Mac coached when I was a young thrower training in California. I had not spoken to the man in thirty years. I heard from my dear friend and former training partner Nick Sweeney, the man whose suggestion about altering Gerd Kanter’s windup helped turn Gerd into a seventy-meter thrower. Joe Kovacs and Ryan Crouser congratulated me when I saw them after their shot put qualification. Joe knew Daniel and Simon from their early days as throwers when I first brought them to training camps at Chula Vista, California. Gerd texted to say that he will now call me “Doctor Discus.” A girl from my childhood in Iceland who sent me a love letter when I was fourteen years old contacted me. The King of Sweden sent us all a message of congratulations. People in Sweden also messaged my wife, congratulating her on being married to me.
I am told that on the broadcast of the discus final, Daniel--after he won--could be heard bellowing, “I am a Swedish viking!”
And maybe the whole throwing community--coaches and athletes and fans from all over the world--felt the same way. Maybe through our love of this sport and affection for these happy, hard-working kids we were all, for one day at least, Swedish vikings.
I went to college at the University of Alabama, and one of my teammates there was a pole vaulter from Sweden named Martin. He had a sister who was a pretty good discus thrower, and during my senior year, he convinced her to come and throw for Alabama. In the weeks before she arrived, Martin and another Swedish guy on the team would talk about her and tell me about her and one day it got into my head that Martin’s sister and I would end up together. I cannot explain why I thought this. It was just a feeling I had.
Not long after Martin’s sister arrived, he brought her to a party at my apartment. We talked a lot that night. Her name was Anna, and she said later that her first impression of me was that I was “very big and very blonde.” I asked her out for the next weekend, she said yes and we have been together ever since.
But life with me has not always been easy. During a typical year since I began coaching in the late 1990’s, I have spent somewhere between 150 and 180 days traveling to training camps and competitions. When home, I have often worked extremely long hours. This was at times very difficult for Anna, especially when our children were young and she was working to finish her PhD and begin her career as a university professor.
It has also been difficult for her when the coaching life has affected me in a negative way. On more than one occasion, I have been hospitalized from exhaustion. In 2016, I had two episodes in one day where my heart rate went crazy and I thought I was going to die. The doctor who attended to me said I would be okay, but asked when was the last time I took a day of rest. I checked my calendar and saw that I had worked sixty-six days in a row.
Early this spring, I started to fall into the same trap. As defending World Champion, Daniel was the favorite to get the gold medal in Tokyo, but for a while I was not happy with his progress in training. He was extremely strong, but he went through a period where his throwing technique was sloppy, and I could not figure out how to help him correct it. I started waking up in the middle of the night and getting out of bed to watch video, searching for the answer, for that one cue that could unlock his potential.
Then, after Fanny had a huge breakthrough at the European Indoor Championships and followed that up with some of the best training sessions of her life, she threw terribly in her first outdoor competition--the Gateshead Diamond League meeting.
I started to worry that we might be blowing an opportunity to do amazing things this season and I knew I would not be able to forgive myself if we did.
I began to get very negative and frustrated, and that is when Anna said, “Enough.”
She made me calm down and realize that I can only do what I can do, that my athletes are human and I am human and we would do our best and see what would happen.
And so I got through that period, and over the summer Fanny broke the Swedish outdoor record three times and finished seventh at the Olympics, and Daniel won the gold, and Simon got the silver, and all I can say is that I owe Martin for talking his little sister into coming to Alabama. Without her, I don’t know how I would have kept my balance through all the ups and downs of this crazy business.
I would also like to thank and dedicate this Olympics to my sister, Aðalbjörg Hafsteinsdóttir. I grew up in a very small town in Iceland called Selfoss, in a simpler time. We were a big family, and we had few material possessions. My mother made all of our clothes, and we never went out to eat. The first time I went with my parents to a restaurant in our town, I was forty-six years old!
But, we had sports and the Ölfusá River where we would go fishing, and the flat-topped mountain called Ingólfsfjall where we would hide behind the rocks, shoot each other with cap pistols, and imagine we were American cowboys.
And we had each other. I was the youngest, and all my siblings played a part in making my childhood wonderful.
But now, my sister has stage 4 cancer.
I thought about her a lot while I was in Japan, and it helped me keep my perspective and to remember to sleep and to eat and not let the possibilities overwhelm me. And if watching those kids compete in a way that honored the sport gave people some happiness for a little while, then I am glad. Because life is short.
When Gerd won in Beijing, the most memorable message I received came from the president of Estonia. He texted his congratulations the second Piotr Małachowski’s final attempt came up short and Gerd was guaranteed the gold medal.
At this Olympics, my favorite message was one I got from my daughter. She also texted me as soon as the competition ended. “Daddy,” she wrote. “Do you understand now that you are pretty good?”