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No excuses: Stefan Daniel’s journey to running and Paralympic fame

The Calgarian has the rare distinction of excelling at both able-bodied and Para sport

Photo by: Kevin Mackinnon

Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s really hard to describe the pressure of a national cross-country 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.”

RELATED: Paralympian and U Sports champ Stefan Daniel: “No excuses”

On course at Kingston, Ont.’s Fort Henry at the Canwest XC 2019. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

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 two years before, a surprise performance that set the group up for gold the following year. While certainly filled 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.”

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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 then-22-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 afterward I knew something was wrong. I was in a lot of pain.”

Daniel takes the win in Montreal. Photo: courtesy of ITU

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 imagine 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.

Daniel exits the water at Groupe Copley World Paratriathlon Series Montreal. Photo: Wagner Araujo/ITU

“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.

 

photo: David Moll/University of Calgary

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 wake-up. 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.”

RELATED: Meet the Paralympian who’s winning Canadian cross-country races

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 fly 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.

 

Stefan with his mom and dad. Photo: courtesy of the Daniel family

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.”

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.

 

Photo: David Moll, University of Calgary

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 of September, and Stefan typically misses the first week of school, flies 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.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Canadian Running

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.