This is me: Olafur Stefansson
From Old Testament to Mexican Indians, from Bolschoi Ballet to clown courses, from Valur to SC Magdeburg and then to Ciudad Real. From developing an app of which he hopes it will become a part of a school education system to being an assistant coach at HC Erlangen. How does this all connect to Olafur Stefansson? Here, in his own words, he tells the story of his life.
THIS IS ME: OLAFUR STEFANSSON
As my parents split quite early, I grew up with my mother and even more with my grandparents. As my mother was studying botany, I spent most of my time with them. My grandfather was like a role model and (was) my teacher and inspiration for many things. He was a theologian and a teacher at the university. He translated the Old Testament to the Icelandic language and was a highly respected person. My grandfather gave me a lot of insights into religion, Nordic mythology and philosophy, and he influenced me for the rest of my life.
My father went to Sweden to become a doctor, and all my sports-famous siblings like my brother Jon-Arnor, later a basketball pro, lived with him, so I did not grow up with them. My grandfather was not much of an athlete, but one of his role models was the founder of the Valur club in my hometown Reykjavik – not because of sports, but because of his Christian attitude. So I joined Valur, and not Fram, the local rivals, when I was five years old.
In this multi-sports club, I played football, basketball and handball – and I got to know some friends for a lifetime like Dagur Sigurdsson, with whom I played handball and football, since I was six years old. We had a lot of fun, we were happy, we had a great social life at the club – and, in terms of handball, we did not lose any matches. At the age of 15, I focused only on handball and football. At the age of 19, I needed to decide which sports I would do. Together with Dagur, I continued with handball. The only reason was that Valur had stronger foundations in handball compared to football and that our role models also played handball.
From 1995 to 2001, we won the Icelandic championship five times and had a great coach, Thorbjörn Jensson, who subsequently became our coach in the national team. During this time, I recognised how sport, mainly team sport, builds your character on and off the court and learnt how to become a good person. I truly had a great time with Valur.
But I still needed to think about my business career. I planned to succeed my father and go to Sweden to study medicine. One of my role models during that time was Brazilian football player Socrates, who in his work life was a doctor for children, and this was exactly my plan.
Then Dagur and I received a phone call from the German club HSG/WTV Wuppertal. They offered us a professional contract. We agreed, mainly as Wuppertal had an Icelandic coach, Viggo Sigurdsson. We were promoted from the second division to Bundesliga, continued at a high level, and we had a great team, including another Icelander, Geir Svensson. I made my first steps abroad, developed as a player and got to know my agent, who is still one of my best friends: Wolfgang Gütschow.
And I was ready for the next step. I had two offers, one from Minden, where I would have played alongside Talant Dujshebaev, who later became the most influential coach in my career, and one from SC Magdeburg. I decided to join SCM – and I really had a tough first year – but then a new coach arrived, another Icelander: Alfred Gislason. He just started his coaching career, and he was so enthusiastic and willing to work hard. Alfred’s mentality was really what I wanted and needed in a coach.
At Magdeburg I met my best handball mate of all: Stefan Kretzschmar. Our personalities were quite different, but when it clicked, we became really good friends – and still are. We were the older guys for a young SCM generation, which, funnily enough, is still making an imprint on handball now with Bennet Wiegert, Maik Machulla, Christian Sprenger, Yves Grafenhorst and Christian Schöne.
Kervadec, the Russians – Atawin and Kuleshov – or Henning Fritz and Stefan Kretzschmar.
They were not only teammates, but friends and teachers – and they were like my mirror. I felt they were me and I was them as a team. We had such a strong bond, we shared the same spirits and ideas, and some friendships for a lifetime started. We were all so close, sitting together in the dressing room like brothers.
The hard work and focus paid off. We became German champions in 2001 and won the Champions League in 2002. We experienced the beauty of our sport and the beauty of a victory. Our success released a huge amount of happiness and power. I felt so happy for me and everybody in the team. I was so happy that I could contribute to this success.
Success is a team effort. A person, just like a river, needs to flow in all directions, be a part of other rivers and the sea. Otherwise, it becomes just a stinky pond, stuck in its own ego. The time in Magdeburg was a great example of that, both team-wise, coaching-wise and fan-wise.
Then a new door opened for me. During the EHF EURO 2002 in Sweden, when Iceland were quite successful, Wolfgang Gütschow and I were sitting together with Ciudad Real – and we agreed that I would move there 18 months later in the summer of 2003. When I told my coach Alfred Gislason that I would leave, he was of course not happy. “You can go to Spain when you are older,” he told me.
It was not a question of money, as Magdeburg had offered me the same, but for me personally the time had come to see something different after almost seven great years in Germany. I wanted to experience the Spanish way of handball, and I still had 18 months to enjoy with my SCM team.
But when I talk about Ciudad Real, it is mostly about the most inspiring coach of my career besides Alfred Gislason: Talant Dujshebaev and his assistant Raul Gonzalez. I had a quite tough start at Ciudad Real, as I could not adapt to the Spanish style of training of nutrition and the heat. I was really down, but then Talant went from player to coach – and everything changed. I had to fight hard for my playing time against stars like Petar Metlicic in my position – but Talant finally gave me back my love for handball and put me on another level.
I was 32 years old and I thought that I knew everything about handball. Talant and Raul showed me new lands; they taught me about the uncertainty of defence. When you are in attack, they played handball in such a different way. It was a new, solid way to play. All players had to know many potential movements and structures in attack, on which they could rely. But there was still this uncertainty of the defence. You had to be creative; you had to take the right solution from those five to seven options you had in mind.
Talant and Raul completely emphasised that moment when you decide what to do. They made us become great deciders in key situations. And this, for me, is the beauty of the game. It was amazing to see how those players and characters fit into this structure. To put all the energy in exactly the right movement in that moment, when it counts, Talant was like a ballet coach of Bolschoi. At the same time, we were ballet dancers, athletes, artists and military combatants. Talant created a great blend of military, arts and sports.
This was a new way to approach handball. It allowed for many mistakes in training as we were getting used to accepting the constant uncertainty embedded in the game. It had a deeper meaning which can only be explained through fairy-tale language; it was like searching for the mysterious blood-red flower with the magical morning dew drop, at the size of a pearl, in the middle. You had to look your fear into the eye and see it for what it really is – beauty, an eternal teacher and a friend.
And all this was combined in those two Champions League finals against Kiel in 2008 and 2009. THW was a machine team, and I still do not know why the cosmos allowed us to win both finals. In my opinion, Kiel deserved to win one of them, mainly in 2009. I still feel so much regret that one of those teams full of amazing players had to lose. But finally – in my last two matches for Ciudad Real – we were the ones on the winners’ podium. In the end, I had won three Champions League trophies with Ciudad Real.
I went back to Germany, joined Rhein-Neckar Löwen – and I had the only two years of my career when I was not conscious enough. I had some problems with my knee and my shoulder, and I was not the 120 per cent professional that I had always been before. And maybe I was not ready enough for the German mentality. When you give 10 per cent less, it is not enough, and I still regret that we did not win a title. I left Löwen with different feelings. Ola Lindgren and Gudmundur Gudmundsson were great coaches. Those two years taught me how important energy and mindset really are. It taught me how much the world is only a reflection of your own radiance and focus, or a lack thereof.
And speaking of this reflection and the mysterious ways of how radiance and energy works: the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing was one of the most beautiful moments in my life. It is always something completely different when you play for the national team compared to club level. Winning the silver medal is still the biggest Olympic success for Iceland in a team sport, and we made a miracle come true. In the two months’ preparation we realised that we had so much energy and had everything in our hands. We had a great team with great friendship and spirit among the players – and, finally, everything paid off.
Like Talant said in his “This is me” story, an Olympic medal is something greater than the rest. Just look upon the old Greek roots of the Olympic Games: you had to be ‘more than human’ to win a medal. You have to combine the superficial human with the deeper understanding of the human; the mythic, the mystical and being a jester to achieve such a thing.
And this is why London 2012 hurt so badly. We had the best Icelandic team of all-time, we beat France for the first time at a major tournament, we wanted to win this gold medal – and then everything fell apart when we lost the quarter-final against Hungary. In my whole career, this match is the only one I still have not processed. But this again shows that beauty and beast live so closely together.
Until 2012, I had played one year for AG Kobenhavn and experienced the best Scandinavian players of that time: Kasper Hvidt, Lars Jörgensen, the young Mikkel Hansen and my Icelandic friends Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson, Snorri Guðjónsson and Arnór Atlasson. It was this Pandora story, and we narrowly missed the EHF Champions League final before this story came to an end.
After a stint at the Police club Al-Lakwiya in Qatar, I finished my career and immediately became coach of my old club Valur. We played quite a good season, but I recognised that I was not ready to become a coach. I needed a break from handball.
Besides handball and family, I constantly had my third world. I studied and achieved degrees in psychology and philosophy, had some diplomas – this was the inspiration of my grandfather. Now I had the time to look deeper at this world, in science, in human characters, in fairy tales and Nordic mythology.
I developed an app which I hope one day will become part of a creative school system, I went to the Amazonas and the Andes mountains, I met with Mexican Indians, Inuit, Scottish and Icelandic storytellers, learned to play the guitar, went into clown-workshops, did street-performing and played the jester. For five years I worked as a storyteller in some Icelandic schools, from 1st to 10th grade, telling fairy tales, ancient mythic stories and sagas.
In my teachings with the kids and teenagers, I combined storytelling with the world of sports. All my teaching was about trying to get each student to understand that reality is his or her own fairy-tale, the trimmed castle garden or the dark, wild forest, all depending on how one views the world.
About one year ago, handball slowly came back to me, both through my son, who is now playing in Denmark, and my close handball network in Iceland. The fed-up feeling I had seven years ago was gone and my curiosity for handball was back.
In the Viking and Shaman tradition I had left my home to discover more to come back stronger. Every teenage boy must go to the mountains and bring something back from there to be accepted by the elder ones as one of them, we say in Iceland.
I had the privilege to go on this journey. Our current society normally does not allow you to do it. Normally you cannot buffer such a long time. This blending of serving my community and digging into the mystical has been something I will never regret. On the contrary, it was pure magic. And at the end of it, I was finally ready to get back to my real passion: coaching handball.
In January 2022, Raul Alonso called me. He had recently become the head coach and the sports director of German club HC Erlangen. I went there for a two-week trial and after that Raul and Carsten Bissel decided to hire me: first for three months and then we prolonged that contract to one year for the 2022/23 Bundesliga season. Every day is full of learning material and my mission in the coming years is to either contribute to HCE’s growth as a head coach or become the head coach of another big club.
I do not believe that any good player automatically is a good coach. Just as a player, a coach needs to learn from more experienced coaches, be passionate and focused, and make a lot of mistakes before becoming great.
I explored the intricacies of the game itself throughout my career as a player, and now I am really looking forward to unfolding my coaching skills after more than 30 years of a long learning process. I have learnt that it is all about the “we”, not the “me”; that you need to have a good character and energy; that you always have to spread clarity and integrity into what you are doing every day, in every training and every match. You need good nutrition, the mutual support and love of your family and enough sleep. I think everything a coach needs is already within himself: the warrior, the love for the game, the love for the players, humility, playfulness, awareness and curiosity. Let’s see what the future will bring.