At 27, Sam Mattis is an Olympian for the first time.
The East Brunswick High School (New Jersey) and University of Pennsylvania graduate, whose mother is Jewish, is in Tokyo with the U.S. Olympic Men’s Track & Field Team for the Summer Olympics.
On July 30, he will compete in the qualifying round for the discus event. If he hits the qualifying distance and/or finishes in the top 12, Mattis will advance to the final one night later.
Mattis won the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Meet of Champions in his last three years at East Brunswick. He also won the 2015 NCAA Men’s Discus Championship as a junior at Penn. But for about a decade, Mattis’ ultimate goal was to reach the sport’s biggest stage.
Now, he’s there.
Unfortunately, though, he won’t get a typical Olympic experience. Pandemic restrictions in the village will force him to stay in his room unless he’s eating or training. Mattis also must wear a mask whenever he leaves the room.
“It’s not ideal, but my goal was to make the Olympics,” he said. “Anything that happens at the Olympics is a nice little plus.”
Mattis competed in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, too. Then 22, he expected to finish in the top three, make the team and head to Rio de Janeiro for the games.
But instead, Mattis placed ninth. The NCAA champion was crushed.
“I should have made the team,” he said.
That same year, the New Jersey native graduated from Penn. And even after missing the Olympic team, he decided to remain a professional track and field athlete.
He lifted 4-5 days a week and threw six times a week. He participated in the decentralized U.S. circuit, run by independent bodies hosting events at colleges. He made between $25,000 and $35,000 a year from stipends, grants and prize money, taking odd jobs on the side, like tutoring and laundry delivery, to supplement his income.
But by 2019, the work paid off. That September, Mattis won the discus event at the Outdoor USA Track and Field Championships. He launched the discus 66 meters and 69 centimeters, well above his usual distance of between 63.50 and 65.50.
“He’s special, man,” said Mattis’ coach, Dane Miller.
Going into 2020, the discus champion looked ready to redeem himself in the Olympic trials. All he needed was a top three finish, and he was the U.S. champion.
But after the pandemic broke out in March, the summer games were postponed. Later that year, Mattis started to feel stiffness in his back, and it didn’t go away. The champ reduced his training schedule and sometimes went weeks without throwing a discus.
In 2021, with the Olympics back on, USA Track & Field formalized and ran a “Journey to Gold” circuit leading up to the summer trials. Since he was the 2019 national champion, Mattis didn’t need to qualify for the penultimate event.
He did, however, need to throw in some “Journey to Gold” events to get back into midseason form. Before 2020, midseason form was a state of existence for the track pro.
But during the pandemic year and into 2021, Mattis didn’t train for most of August and September and chunks of October, December, January and April. In the spring, he also missed the first “Journey to Gold” meet.
Finally, in May, Mattis dialed up his training regimen and started launching in meets again. Except he wasn’t truly launching.
At one early “Journey to Gold” event in California, Mattis placed eighth out of 10. In his next competition at the University of Arizona, he finished fourth but only threw the discus 62 meters and 77 centimeters, well below his pre-injury average.
Trials were looming in late June at the mecca of U.S. track & field: Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. And Mattis was struggling through the worst season of his career.
But since he was training and competing again, Mattis found his confidence before the meet.
“I knew I could make the team if I stayed focused, and didn’t worry about what other people were doing,” he said.
The day arrived and, before stepping into the circle, Mattis cleared his head and visualized the throw. He took a deep breath and launched the discus far enough to place third.
“It wasn’t great,” Mattis said. “But I ended up placing third, so you can’t be too upset.”
Miller was proud of his pupil’s grit. He also said that Mattis has a thrower’s chance in the Olympics.
“I believe he is capable of achieving the final,” Miller said. “From there he will really need to let it loose.”