Australian Olympian Dani Stevens is set to compete in her fourth Olympic Games, and more determined than ever to medal. Mary Konstantopoulos spoke to Stevens.
In 2008 Dani Stevens was 20 years old and preparing to represent Australia in her first Olympic Games in discus.
Now, 13 years later, Stevens is preparing to depart for her fourth Olympic Games and is more determined than ever to come home with a medal around her neck.
Given the length of her career, plenty has changed for Stevens since she started competing internationally in 2008.
“Back in 2008, I threw a personal best at the National Championships to gain Olympic selection and I thought being an athlete was my natural path,” she said.
“I was so determined and dedicated to making it to the Olympics, I didn’t even question whether I would make it.”
This sense of determination carried Stevens through her first three Olympics. Particularly in Rio, Stevens felt like she was the fittest and strongest she had ever been and thought she had a real chance of medalling.
“I thought I was the best athlete I could be at that point,” said Stevens.
“Unfortunately I finished fourth on the day which was pretty devastating. I felt so close yet so far away at the same time.
“But I really enjoyed my experience and have used that to spur me on to keep pushing to win an Olympic medal.”
But for Stevens, heading into her fourth Olympics her feelings have changed. In a way, she has grown up during her time as an athlete. At her first Olympics, Stevens was the youngest on the team and many were encouraging to think about how long her career could be. Some even suggested she could compete at five Olympic Games.
Now at age 32, Stevens has had the opportunity to travel, to learn and to gain plenty of life experience through her career as an athlete. It’s this experience that she hopes to draw from when she reaches what will be a very different Olympic Games in Tokyo.
What has also changed Stevens perspective are the challenges she has faced in reaching Tokyo. Apart from the pandemic curveball, Stevens also spent most of last year recovering from a serious neck injury. Whilst the hope was that she would be fit for the original dates of the Tokyo Games, she realised six weeks into her recovery that the process might take a bit longer.
There were times when Stevens considered retirement, but she then realised that regardless of whether she was aiming for Tokyo or not, that she would have to do the rehab.
“I had to do the rehab to be able to function for everyday life; to do thinks like pick up a drink bottle, drive a car and pick up a bag,” she said.
“I had such weakness in my right arm that initially all those things were a challenge.”
Towards the end of her rehab, Stevens decided to pick up a discus and have a play around.
“As soon as I warmed up, picked up the discus and started flicking it around from my right to left hand I was like, I still love this.”
From there, Stevens was focused on Tokyo. But accompanying that sense of determination that was so present for her first three Olympics was a sense of gratefulness for her health and for the opportunity to potentially represent Australia again.
“A year ago, given the mental and physical situation that I was in, I would have bet my house that I would not have qualified and would not have had the chance to compete at Nationals,” she said.
“So to make the team because of my hard work was very special and I’m incredibly grateful.”
Whilst plenty has changed for Stevens during her career, there has been one constant and that’s her coach, Denis Knowles.
Stevens started in Little Athletics when she was four years old. She had an older sister who did Little Athletics too and a young Stevens wanted nothing more than to imitate her big sister.
When she was eight years old, she joined a friend of hers who was getting some additional coaching.
That’s when Knowles started coaching Stevens and they have been together ever since.
“He has taken me from an eight year old to four Olympics, a World Championships and Commonwealth Games,” said Stevens.
“Everything I have achieved in my career has been thanks to Denis.”
Being with the same coach for over 20 years has meant that the two have formed an extremely close friendship, so much so that the two even shared a dance at Stevens wedding.
“I am 32 and he is 70, so there’s a bit of an age gap, but we get along like a house on fire and he has always had my best interests at heart,” said Stevens.
“He has always told me that the person that you are is far more important to me than what I achieve in athletics.
“It’s a really special bond and I’m so grateful that something like throwing a discus would bring someone like Denis into my life.”