PROVO Niklas Arrhenius was a young boy when his father, Anders, took him and his brothers to the cemetery during one of their summer visits to their homeland in Sweden. They were looking for the grave of Goran Svensson, a world-class Swedish discus thrower who, like Anders, had competed for BYU. They searched for the tombstone and finally found it. It featured a picture of Mount Timpanogos and this simple inscription: "Discus thrower Goran Svensson."
For the Arrheniuses, it was a reminder that they wanted to be remembered for something more. They know well that the passion to throw the discus and shot put can define and consume lives. Men have spent half their lives trying to achieve perfection in the art of throwing. It can become an addiction, says one former Olympian. Svensson and another BYU teammate from the same era, Stefan Fernholm, died at the age of 36 and 37, respectively. Svensson admitted to taking steroids.
"It has ruined people," says Arrhenius, looking back. "That's all their life was. Some are divorced, some take steroids. All they were were discus throwers. I don't want that."
Standing in the cemetery that day, Anders told his boys, "I don't want that on my tombstone. Put 'Great Father,' or something like that." He made sure his four children all of whom would become standout throwers strived for balance in their lives. They would get good grades, become Eagle Scouts, participate in other sports besides track, attend college, serve missions for their church and marry. Nik and his two brothers did all those things, which wasn't easy because all of them were tantalized by the knowledge that they were among the top young throwers in the country.
Nik, a 23-year-old junior at BYU, is starting to fulfill the great expectations that were his when he threw a still-standing national record in the discus while competing for Mountain View High School. Since then there has been the two-year church mission and two years of injuries. This year he has returned to form. He has thrown the discus 208 feet, 11 inches this season, which ranks second in the nation headed into next week's NCAA championships. He was unbeaten until a second-place finish at last weekend's NCAA West Regional in Provo.
"He is nowhere near his potential," says Anders, a special ed teacher who doubles as his sons' strength coach. " ... He can do something big here."
"The guy is so talented," says BYU coach Mark Robison. "He's amazing."
No one who saw Nik throw in high school would be surprised by his current performances. He was a man among boys at the time, and he made the event fun to watch. Kids from other schools who normally would not pay attention to large boys throwing things, suddenly would stop what they were doing to watch Arrhenius. His throws shot out of his hand like a Frisbee. He was a cat in the ring, quick, agile, graceful and explosive. His throw of 234 feet, 3 inches set a phenomenal national record, breaking the previous record by a mind-boggling 9 feet.
After completing his mission, Arrhenius started his collegiate career and threw the shot put 65 feet, the second-best mark in school history. Then came the injuries stress fracture of the pubic bone, torn pectoral muscle, broken wrist, sports hernias and back problems. "He's so powerful and strong and quick that he's almost his own worst enemy," says Robison. "His body has a problem supporting the force he exerts."
After undergoing surgery last summer, Arrhenius was unable to begin training until November, which gave him a late start in his preparation for the current season.
"The last two years he's just been throwing on his talent," says Anders. "Even this year he is behind as far as training goes. From June to November he did nothing. He was on crutches. He's still not technically where he can be."
Arrhenius, who has dual citizenship, plans to compete for Sweden in the next Olympics. In a few weeks he will begin competing on the European circuit for Sweden, where he is the top-ranked discus thrower in the country.
"Track is bigger over there," Anders explains. "It's more fun, better organized."
"He's got a chance to make some money (when he's finished at BYU)," says Robison. "He could get a shoe contract. In Sweden, they do a good job of supporting their athletes."
Arrhenius seemed destined for such a career of course. The throwing events are a passion in Scandinavian countries and in the Arrhenius family. Anders, who came to the U.S. to compete for BYU, made the Swedish Olympic team in the shot put (an injury prevented him from competing in the Games) and he continued to throw into his mid-30s. His children Daniel, Nik, Leif and Annika got the throwing bug while tagging around with him at meets and practices. The boys grew big, like their father (Nik is the smallest at 6-4, 250).
Each summer, Anders took his brood on a month-long visit to Sweden, where they competed and observed summer track meets in Stockholm's old Olympic Stadium. "They saw what track is about over there," says Anders. "It's like football there."
All of his boys became state champions and state record holders who went on to compete for BYU (Leif is on a mission and Daniel has completed his eligibility and attends medical school); Annika competed for Utah Valley State. As brother throwing teams go, they are probably rivaled only by the USA's Crousers Mitch, Dean and Brian and Finland's Jouppiluses.
"I never pushed them," says Anders. "I told them, 'If you like it, fine; it you don't, fine.'"
They liked it well enough that they studied videotape of the great throwers, running the tape back and forth, back and forth, sometimes in slow motion. They read the history of the throws and the throwers. They began weight training when they were 12 years old, under Anders' supervision. In the beginning they performed Olympic lifts with broomsticks to learn proper technique, then they graduated to small bars and then to the Olympic bar before they began adding weights. They could all bench press more than 400 pounds in high school.
"I started them young, but I was very careful," says Anders. "You can ruin a young person's body. You've got to do it right."
They thrived under their father's tutelage, although the relationship was predictably tenuous at times. "I'm not going to lie," says Nik. "A father coaching his son always has ups and downs. I'd want to play. If I had a bad workout, he'd say no."
Anders left it to several of his accomplished friends to coach his sons in throwing technique former BYU star Tapio Kuusela and four-time Olympian and former world record holder L. Jay Silvester.
"I realized it was difficult for a father to coach his own kids," says Anders. "I want to be a father first. You can't have an ego if there are people around who can coach. I stepped away."
Whether lifting or throwing, the Arrheniuses' workouts are loud and intense. They scream with each exertion to keep the adrenaline pumping and "to stay as close to competition intensity as possible," says Nik.
For outsiders, it is difficult to understand the hold that the throwing events have on men. The throwing community is a tight, fiercely dedicated group. Silvester, a deep thinking, intelligent and intense man, once said this about the allure of the discus: "Each (man) has to find something to spend his energy against, to struggle against, to excel in. Some things just catch our fancy, they become us, we become them, we become attached to an endeavor. There is an internal force that drives you to do that thing, and it becomes an addiction." Silvester loved to watch the discus fly, "to watch it pass through the atmosphere with energy I impart to it."
E-mail: [email protected]