Canadian Running

No Ex­cuses

Ste­fan Daniel’s jour­ney to run­ning and Par­a­lympic fame

- By Kevin Mack­in­non Sports · Running · Paralympic Games · Athletics · Calgary · Calgary Dinos · Kingston · Ontario · University of Calgary · American Soccer League · Germany · Championship · Hawaii · Arizona · Florida · Rio de Janeiro · Alberta · Vancouver · Chris Jericho · Jericho · London · England · Greater London · Martin Schulz · Canadian Interuniversity Sport · North American Soccer League · Germany national football team · Kevin Nash · Carolyn Murray

Cal­gary’s Ste­fan Daniel has the rare distinctio­n of ex­celling in both able-bod­ied and Para sport. He won gold as a mem­ber of the Cal­gary Di­nos at the 2019 Cana­dian na­tional cross-coun­try cham­pi­onships and sil­ver in the 2016 Par­a­lympic triathlon. His love of run­ning fuels his suc­cess in both cross-coun­try and tri, and he has never let his dis­abil­ity thwart his vi­sion or his level of ef­fort.

Un­less you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it, it’s re­ally hard to de­scribe the pres­sure of a na­tional cross­coun­try cham­pi­onship when the ti­tle is on the line. It’s dif­fer­ent if your team is sim­ply look­ing for a good day – say, a fin­ish in the top five. To win gold re­quires ster­ling per­for­mances from ev­ery­one on the team. There’s no room for any­one to have a bad day. Even if you might have a stress frac­ture. Even if you are the world’s best Para triath­lete, with four world ti­tles to your name and a Par­a­lympic sil­ver medal earned when you were only 19.

“He’s the glue of the team,” Cal­gary coach Doug La­mont says of Ste­fan Daniel. “He got us through the tough times.”

In Novem­ber 2019, Daniel lined up at the U Sports na­tional cham­pi­onships at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ont., along­side his Univer­sity of Cal­gary Dino team­mates, look­ing to help the team win a sec­ond straight na­tional ti­tle. La­mont cred­its Daniel as be­ing the an­chor that helped the team take sil­ver at the na­tional cham­pi­onships t wo years be­fore, a sur­prise per­for­mance that set the group up for gold the fol­low­ing year. While cer­tainly f illed with tal­ent , the Di­nos didn’t have a su­per­star to lead the way – the wins came from the group run­ning to their high­est level on the day it counted most.

“When Ste­fan came onto cam­pus and we got the sil­ver medal in Vic­to­ria, it was be­cause we had a strong team,” La­mont re­mem­bers.

“The fol­low­ing year in Kingston, they were will­ing to put them­selves on the line for each other, and we won for the first time.”

None was more will­ing than Daniel. If any­one had a rea­son not to take on the chal­leng­ing, muddy course on that cold, win­try day on a hill many call the windi­est spot in Canada, it was the then22-year-old Cal­gar­ian. Two weeks be­fore, he’d taken the CanWest cross-coun­try cham­pi­onships in a wire-to-wire per­for­mance. Then his foot started to hurt.

“I ran through it, and the pain went down through the week,” he says. “Four or five days be­fore U Sports, I wasn’t feel­ing any­thing. I didn’t feel any­thing dur­ing the race, ei­ther, but im­me­di­ately after­wards I knew some­thing was wrong. I was in a lot of pain.”

Af­ter fin­ish­ing 10th the year be­fore, Daniel took 12th in Kingston, the third Dino be­hind Rus­sell Pen­nock (who fin­ished third over­all) and Matthew Travaglini (fourth). The team took the ti­tle by 19 points. “In a team en­vi­ron­ment the suc­cess of the team is ev­ery­one do­ing their role,” La­mont says. “Rus­sell was our strong­est run­ner – he was the of­fi­cial cap­tain of the team. The other ath­letes ful­filled their roles be­cause they stepped up on the day. And Ste­fan was the glue that held the team to­gether. He re­ally un­der­stood the im­por­tance of team­work in their suc­cess.”

That pain in Daniel’s foot turned out to be a stress frac­ture in his nav­ic­u­lar bone, forc­ing him to take the next six weeks off, get­ting around on crutches – not ex­actly op­ti­mal prepa­ra­tion for a Par­a­lympic favourite.

NO LIM­ITS

But those who know him couldn’t i mag­ine any sce­nario in which he didn’t run that day in Kingston. Daniel was born with bi­lat­eral ra­dial club hands (his right arm is more af­fected), but he was raised in an en­vi­ron­ment where his arms weren’t go­ing to be a rea­son not to do any­thing he wanted to do. He grew up watch­ing his brother Chris­tian, who is four years older and has cere­bral palsy, com­pete in swim­ming.

“My brother taught me not to let any­thing limit you,” Ste­fan says. “Don’t let any­one tell you you can’t do some­thing.

“My brother was one of the slower swim­mers in the club,” he goes on, “but he al­ways had a smile on his face, al­ways worked harder than ev­ery­one else. It rubbed off on me. He didn’t care what he had, he just wanted to do the best he could with what he had.”

It’s not hard to imag­ine the Daniel boys du­elling for the ti­tle of hard­est-work­ing ath­lete in the club. In the Daniel house­hold, ath­letic suc­cess was the norm: their dad, Chris, played pro­fes­sional soc­cer in the North

Amer­i­can Soc­cer League ( nasl) and spent a year play­ing for a club in Ger­many. Af­ter he gave up on his soc­cer ca­reer, Chris turned to en­durance sport, mak­ing his long-dis­tance triathlon de­but at Iron­man Canada in 1991, where he qual­i­fied for the Iron­man World Cham­pi­onship in Hawaii. (He would com­pete in Hawaii again in 1994.) In 2010 he qual­i­fied for worlds again at Iron­man Ari­zona, rac­ing on the Big Is­land the fol­low­ing year, 20 years af­ter his first ap­pear­ance. Their mom, Sue, qual­i­fied for and ran the Bos­ton Marathon in 2005 and qual­i­fied again for 2011. She com­pleted Iron­man Florida in 12:01:15 in 2009.

As far as Chris and Sue were con­cerned, nei­ther Chris­tian’s cere­bral palsy nor Ste­fan’s arms were go­ing to pre­vent them from do­ing any­thing they wanted to do. There were Kids of Steel triathlons, rock climb­ing, cross-coun­try run­ning and, of course, swim­ming. “Swim­ming pro­vided so much op­por­tu­nity for growth, with the dis­ci­pline and fo­cus re­quired,” Sue says.

Swim­ming re­quired that the fam­ily be all in: morn­ings started at 4:45 to get to the day’s first prac­tice. Then school, another swim prac­tice in the af­ter­noon, home­work, bed and another 4:45 wakeup. Both boys ex­celled in the pool as Para swim­mers – in 2012 Chris­tian im­proved his per­sonal best time for the 400m freestyle by al­most 30 sec­onds, miss­ing the Par­a­lympic qual­i­fy­ing time by less than a sec­ond. Swim Canada was hop­ing Ste­fan would fol­low in

his brother’s wake, but when Para triathlon was added to the 2016 Par­a­lympic Games in Rio, Ste­fan de­cided he wanted to fo­cus on tri, be­cause of his love of run­ning. But triathlon al­lowed him to con­tinue to run while con­tin­u­ing his swim­ming. “Run­ning has al­ways been my favourite part of triathlon and my num­ber one pas­sion,” Ste­fan says, “but I didn’t want to give up swim­ming.”

Even with all the time spent at the pool, Ste­fan par­tic­i­pated in lots of run­ning events while grow­ing up. There was the oc­ca­sional road race with Sue, and when he was 12, he ran the Okana­gan Half Marathon. Af­ter bug­ging his dad to let him take part, Chris agreed, as long as he promised to pace him­self. Con­cerned that Ste­fan would f ly off the start and push too hard too early, Chris in­sisted that Ste­fan had to run with him un­til they got close to the fin­ish.

With only a few kilo­me­tres to go, Chris told Ste­fan he was free to run at his own pace. Not happy with his 1:25 fin­ish­ing time, Ste­fan ex­pressed his frus­tra­tion as soon as Chris reached the fin­ish line. “I could have gone way faster if you hadn’t slowed me down for the first 19 km,” Chris re­mem­bers him say­ing.

That one foray into long-dis­tance run­ning at such a young age didn’t af­fect Ste­fan’s speed, and over the years he con­tin­ued to do well as a run­ner. In Grade 9 he joined the Univer­sity of Cal­gary Ath­let­ics Club and worked with renowned coach Mike Van Tighem. He won the Al­berta cross-coun­try and 3,000m pro­vin­cial ti­tles in Grades 10 and 11, and the youth na­tional cross-coun­try ti­tle in 2014 at Van­cou­ver’s Jeri­cho Beach.

The year be­fore he took that na­tional ti­tle he’d turned his sights to Para triathlon, and it wasn’t long be­fore his suc­cess in the sport was start­ing to force him to miss more ma­jor run­ning events. It’s not too of­ten you get to tell peo­ple you can’t de­fend your 3,000m high-school ti­tle be­cause you have to com­pete at a world cup event in Lon­don, Eng­land, but that quickly be­came the story of Daniel ’s life. He took the Para triathlon world ti­tle in 2015 in Chicago and went into the Par­a­lympics in Rio as a medal con­tender. His sil­ver medal be­hind Ger­many’s Martin Schulz, who is seven years older, served as proof that Daniel can han­dle the pres­sure cooker that is a ma­jor games.

“Rio was awe­some,” Daniel re­mem­bers. “To have Par­a­lympic ex­pe­ri­ence that young … I put a lot of pres­sure on my­self. If train­ing wasn’t go­ing well, I’d re­ally strug­gle. That whole ex­pe­ri­ence made me a bet­ter ath­lete.”

“It’s not too of­ten you get to tell peo­ple you can’t de­fend your 3,000m high­school ti­tle be­cause you have to com­pete at a world cup event”

FO­CUS

It’s easy for the rest of us to rhyme off the “sim­ply do your best” mantra, but when you’re head­ing into the Par­a­lympics as the favourite to win, the pres­sure is im­mense. Triathlon Canada, the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, re­lies on Daniel’s suc­cess to pro­cure govern­ment fund­ing, which is based on top fin­ishes at the Olympics and Par­a­lympics.

But Daniel’s life has set him up to deal with that pres­sure in a unique way. Chris­tian might have been the slow­est guy in the pool when he was 12, but when he fo­cused on im­prov­ing, mas­ter­ing his stroke and sim­ply get­ting faster, he set him­self up for suc­cess as a Para swim­mer. “It’s the best way to deal with it,” Chris­tian says of the chal­lenge of over­com­ing a dis­abil­ity. “Adapt the world to you. Fig­ure out what you can do.”

“He’s never used his dis­abil­ity as a crutch,” Chris said in a re­cent tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, “and that alone makes me proud of what he does. Every­thing else is a bonus – I loved him com­pet­ing at any level. Whether he did well or poorly, I just loved the fact that he did it.” Tal­ent only takes you so far in sport, and in life – es­pe­cially when it comes to over­com­ing a dis­abil­ity. “In high school his ath­leti­cism didn’t strike me – his fo­cus was the main thing,” La­mont re­mem­bers. “Stef has an in­sane abil­ity to suf­fer, and an in­ter­nal drive to push him­self,” says Triathlon Canada’s Para triathlon coach, Carolyn Mur­ray. “He is a well-rounded ath­lete with strong agility and a big en­gine, and is able to master new skills.”

La­mont cred­its Mur­ray for al­low­ing Daniel to com­pete with the cross-coun­try team over the last few years. It’s not an easy tran­si­tion. The world Para triathlon cham­pi­onships are usu­ally at the be­gin­ning

“At some point he’d like to take on the marathon”

of Septem­ber, and Ste­fan typ­i­cally misses the first week of school, f lies back home to Cal­gary, spends a few days re­cov­er­ing from jet lag, and then joins the team. “Carolyn is do­ing a great job with him, al­low­ing him to pur­sue this op­por­tu­nity at the univer­sity with the cross-coun­try,” La­mont says. “When he’s in town and in a run­ning phase, he re­ally works with the team and does stuff that’s good for the team.” Daniel loves the team as­pect of cross-coun­try run­ning – the “feel­ing that you’re be­ing counted on.”

While triathlon is his fo­cus right now, Daniel says he would like to take on some other run­ning chal­lenges at some point. Of course, there will be another go at a na­tional cross-coun­try ti­tle with his Dino team­mates, but at some point he’d like to take on the marathon.

He’d also like to take a shot at elite long-dis­tance triathlon rac­ing, where his slower swim wouldn’t be as much of an is­sue. It’s not a stretch to imag­ine him ex­celling against able-bod­ied pros in this en­vi­ron­ment – in 2015 he claimed the na­tional ju­nior triathlon ti­tle, a feat so rare and im­pres­sive that Triathlon Mag­a­zine Canada named him its triath­lete of the year.

All that will have to wait, though, be­cause later this year he will be div­ing into the wa­ter in Tokyo har­bour, look­ing to move up a spot on the Par­a­lympic triathlon podium. Like that Novem­ber day in 2019, it’ll be another pres­sure-packed day. Which is just fine – Ste­fan Daniel has spent most of his life pre­par­ing for it.

Kevin Mack­in­non, the found­ing ed­i­tor of Triathlon Mag­a­zine Canada, has been a se­nior ed­i­tor at Cana­dian Run­ning mag­a­zine since its in­cep­tion. A for­mer pro­fes­sional triath­lete, Mack­in­non works as a coach, race an­nouncer, ed­i­tor, writer and pho­tog­ra­pher.

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 ??  ?? ABOVE Daniel in the mix at the start of the Canwest XC 2019, Kingston, Ont. LEFT Daniel races the Rio test event for Canada RIGHT Ste­fan with his mom and dad
ABOVE Daniel in the mix at the start of the Canwest XC 2019, Kingston, Ont. LEFT Daniel races the Rio test event for Canada RIGHT Ste­fan with his mom and dad
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 ??  ?? ABOVE Daniel cel­e­brates the win at the 2019 Canwest XC
ABOVE Daniel cel­e­brates the win at the 2019 Canwest XC

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