Sam Mattis - U.S. Olympic Team - Discus
Men’s Discus Qualifying Round: July 29th, 8:45pm EDT
Men’s Discus Final Round: July 31st, 7:15am EDT
Women's Discus Qualifying Round: Friday, July 30th, 8:30pm Eastern Daylight Time (U.S.)
Women's Discus Final Round: Monday, August 2nd, 7:00am Eastern Daylight Time (U.S.)
The past year and a half presented unique challenges and obstacles to the athletes vying for the 2020 Olympics. The Games themselves were delayed a year, and still face hurdles even though the competition is underway. In this Q&A, Sam Mattis, first-time Olympian on the U.S. Men's Discus team, spoke with me just before departing for Tokyo, and shared his story of how he maneuvered through the adversity and made his way to his Olympic moment.
Andy Pettit: If I rewind the calendar back to December, 2019, you had won the USATF nationals that year, placed 11th in the IAAF world championships, and had participated in a number of international meets. So, by December, what was your mindset, as I’m sure you were anticipating and looking towards the U S trials in June, 2020?
Sam Mattis: In December, 2019, I felt really good and kept doing well for a few months after that. I was in really good shape and riding the momentum from the 2019 season. I had just started to get back into pretty good throwing shape. I was looking good and my numbers in the weight room were up there. It was cold and snowy out, so I couldn't necessarily see how far I was throwing all the time. I was living in New Jersey, and we were throwing in a bubble and throws were going pretty far there. I was super excited for the 2020 season and looking to do some big things and keep progressing.
AP: Did you have a roadmap towards training and progression, including your strength training and so forth? Did you have certain milestones that you were trying to reach up to the U.S. trials?
SM: Honestly, nothing super specific. We do a lot of Olympic lifting, so just trying to get those numbers up while staying healthy. I think in the lead up to what would have been the 2020 season, I had cleaned 200 kilos and smashed 150, so I was feeling super strong and explosive. Usually what we do is just back off a little bit for the season in the weight room, increase the volume of technical throws and increase the focus on the harder throws. So, there's no set roadmap, but we usually just back off a little bit, so we're a little fresher for the season.
AP: What were the first signs of uncertainty about the pandemic hitting, and perhaps there might be a change to your Olympic schedule?
SM: I was up on the news, of Covid-19 coming out of China. In January, when it first popped up, I just happened to follow a couple of public health people on Twitter. They seemed pretty concerned and by late January, it was obvious that things were going to be very different for at least a couple of months. I obviously had no idea how bad it would get or how long it would last or continue to be an ongoing health crisis. But by the end of January, I had suspicions that the season would be delayed. And then by mid-February, early March, I knew that 2020 just wasn't going to happen.
AP: What did you do? How did you adjust your training? Did you just take time off? Did you wait for more direction?
SM: It took all of these organizations a little bit of time to officially come out with the news that there wasn't going to be an Olympics in 2020, and that basically every track meet was going to be canceled. So through probably early April, I tried to keep training as normally as possible, which definitely wasn't easy. We ended up lifting out of a shed for a little while and just making sure there's no one with us at practice. Then once we realized that nothing was going to happen, we went back to what we usually do. By September, I was just trying to get stronger and build better technique. So that was kind of what last summer was like for us. Throughout the rest of that year, I was just trying to stay motivated and in the game. Dealing with all of the uncertainty was really the big challenge.
AP: I would think that you were looking forward to the 2020 Games because your whole career you have excelled at every level and you've progressed to that next level. So, I assume when you knew that this wasn't going to happen, was there a letdown, both mentally and physically?
SM: There definitely was. Like I said, the challenge was trying to focus and train through everything. These games seemed pretty uncertain even until a couple of weeks ago. So mentally, it was just trying to show up and give a full effort without any meets to look forward to or any real sponsorship or prize money opportunities for over a year. And physically for me, it was definitely a challenge to stay healthy. This was a novel situation that I don't think many coaches ever had to plan for before. Then, I ended up hurting my back last summer and that's caused me problems throughout this year. Just figuring out how to keep training while managing a back injury, which really limited how much I did twists, was pretty tough for me. It was just a lot of managing both the mental and physical sides of uncertainty, really.
AP: What’s your feedback on the trials in terms of your own performance and making the U.S. Olympic team?
SM: I think it's just set in the last couple of days that I made the team, because I was surprised that my performance got me a place on the team, I thought it would take probably at least a meter further to make the team, which was something that I thought I could do, but that I just didn't end up doing on that day. So, it's kind of weird navigating those feelings, knowing that I should've done better and could have done better. But I still made the team. And now that I’ve made the team, ultimately the goal is to do well at the Olympics. I’m focusing on that now.
AP: It was a hot day in Eugene at the trials, right?
SM: That is an understatement. The track surface was 108 degrees while we were throwing. So it wasn't that nice. There was not a ton of shade while we were throwing, and they slowed us down for the TV broadcast. We were just baking out there for an hour and a half. As bad as it was, if we had competed in the daytime on Saturday or Sunday, we would’ve had to face a temperature of 113 degrees. And I think the track at one point read 140 degrees. If you don't have a good first throw in that heat, you're kind of done: it's going to be roasting.
AP: What are you expecting Tokyo to be like?
SM: I think it's going to be pretty hot again. I read that it could be the hottest Olympics on record, but I guess that's going to be the case for every Olympics from here on out. I think where we train in Pennsylvania, it's generally been in the high 80’s to mid-90’s and 80% humidity. So, we're prepared, but I’m not happy about it. It doesn't make it easy to breathe.
AP: Where in Pennsylvania do you train and for how long have you been doing that?
SM: We're in Fleetwood. It's like an hour and a half to two hours northwest of Philly. It's right outside of Reading. I've been here most of the time since 2016 and we're leaving from here for Tokyo on July 24th.
AP: On the trip over, is that with the Olympic team or will you all have different flight arrangements?
SM: We have a lot of different flight arrangements, but I'll be flying out of Newark. And that ends up being a central enough hub that I think if not every seat on the plane, most will be team USA people. So, it'll be like just a team flight for the most part.
AP: So even before the trials, did you have your eye on any world competitors who might be up and coming? Do you focus on that at all and what other folks are doing?
SM: I wouldn't say I focus on it. Just being in the throwing world, it's a small group of people, and discus is pretty much a niche event. You hear about what everyone's doing and everyone knows what their mark is on the world stage and how that stands up. And, who's been throwing well and consistently, so we have a good idea of the whole picture, but I usually try to just stay focused on myself. And most of what I know about other throwers comes from other throwers talking about other throwers rather than me looking them up and seeing how they're doing.
AP: How many meets have you participated in this year?
SM: Not that many. Definitely way fewer than usual. I think it's just been three. Like we've done some local meets here (Fleetwood, PA) but those have really just been kind of practices for me. I wouldn't really count those as real meets. So, three. It's been Mount SAC, Tucson and then the trials. So, a quick season.
AP: You're two weeks away from the Games. Do you think that you're more prepared now versus a year ago? Is there any type of silver lining in all of this?
SM: I think if this was a year ago, I'd probably be in a lot better shape and maybe have a little bit more potential to do really well. I think I still do have that potential, but having to train that extra year, especially with an injury for a couple months, set me back a little bit, and I think I'm starting to get back on track now. I'll be in Tokyo, which is the big thing, and anything can happen there. I'll just try to do the best that I can and if it's up to what I think is my potential, I'll end up doing pretty well.
AP: Hypothetically, if you throw your personal best, that would have won bronze in Rio.
SM: Yes, so I've just got to do that again.
AP: Now for some personal stuff. Your dad was captain of the William and Mary track and field team. Did he throw the discus?
SM: No, he did hammer and shot put, but not the discus that I do.
AP: And while you were at UPenn, who was your throws coach?
SM: Tony Tenisci was the throws coach there and has been for a number of years.
AP: Tell me a little bit about the impact that Mark Mirabelli had on you.
SM: That's actually a really funny question. He was the first outside coach that my dad and I went to when I was a freshman in high school. It was probably that fall and winter. He's one of those guys that you either see or hear about at every track meet in New Jersey. Once I started doing well in track, we figured we'd go over to Coach Mirabelli. And that kind of started us off on the path of getting serious about this. We ended up getting some coaching from him over the next couple of years, until I ended up at Garage Strength Performance Training with Dane Miller. We saw Olympians like Matt Wilkins a couple of times. Olympians from Norway; two Belgians. So Mirabelli was like the first guy that we saw. He gave us encouragement and direction, and we just took it from there.
AP: What is your schedule from now up until the Olympics qualifying round?
SM: When we got back from trials, we hit the weight room a little bit harder, for about two and a half weeks. We just started backing off this week. And I'm sure next week and the week after, it's just going to be focused on moving fast in the weight room, nothing heavy, and then just really focus technically. Fewer throws, but more intensely focused ones. I'm trying to get into a rhythm where I can basically just wake up and throw my best, essentially where I just don't even have to think about the throw. I just do it. So that's the goal for the next two weeks and just kind of trying to plan travel, and sleep and nutrition to make that a possibility.
AP: It sounds like you're right on top of it. Just no caffeine, right? I read where you had a hard time sleeping the night before the trials.
SM: The schedule for trials was tough with qualifying and then finals the next day. But I think we have qualifying in the morning in Japan, so hopefully the caffeine wears off and I can get a decent night's sleep before the finals. But if I make an Olympic final, I'm probably not going to sleep anyway. So, I'll just have some extra coffee and pre-workout.
AP: I hope you’re able to overcome some of your nagging injuries and have a good performance in Tokyo.
SM: I'm hoping so. I’m definitely going to draw a little inspiration from Al Oerter (Tokyo ’64), being barely able to walk without pain and still getting a gold medal. So, I don't think I have much of an excuse. Oerter is one of those legendary figures in throwing that everybody draws inspiration from and tries to live up to. So, it's just been cool to cast some comparisons from there.
AP: You're sponsored by the NYAC. that was Al Oerter’s club as well.
SM: The NYAC has been super helpful with support. Al Oerter is everywhere there. I think his is an awesome story (“The Impossible”). I’m looking forward to reading it.
AP: I appreciate you speaking with us. Best of luck, and we're with you all the way. Wish we could be there to lend our support
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