Above: Brad Mathas (258) winning his fourth NZ 800m title in Wellington recently. Photo by Alan McDonald Macspeedfoto.
Already a four-time senior National 800m champion at the age of 21, Brad Mathas has now set himself the more ambitious goal of international success. Steve Landells chats to the World University Games-bound athlete about his hopes for the future.
When Brad Mathas stepped off the track a disconsolate last in his 1000m heat at 2010 the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore he faced a moment of reckoning.
The then 17-year-old’s fledgling career could easily been crushed by the chastening experience of finishing tailed off nearly 20 seconds behind the heat winner in an abject 2:44.64. Yet instead he drew motivation from the pain of the performance. He opted to persist with the sport. It was, he insists, “a big wake up call.”
“I thought I don’t ever want to be in this position again,” explains Wanganui-raised Mathas, who at least had the consolation of improving on his heat display by more than ten seconds to place ninth in the B Final. “Many athletes competing at Youth Olympic Games decided afterwards that they didn’t want to run anymore, but it gave me a kick up the backside and made me decide to pursue my goals.
“I was really disappointed in myself. I was really unprepared. I didn’t think it would be how it was. Coming from New Zealand I was used to beating everybody by heaps, but what it made me do is work harder to reach the world stage.”
For the past five years Brad has been doggedly and diligently working towards this dream and every season has consistently chipped away at his 800m PB – which now stands at 1:47.39. He is now a four-time national champion and in July he has the chance to shine at a global level at the World University Games.
Born into a family of soccer players – his parents both played the game - he featured as a left midfielder of some promise in his younger days, but also enjoyed cross country where he claimed a string of school victories.
Aged 14 he won selection for the lower North Island squad in football, but fearing training twice a week in Palmerston North may compromise his athletics dreams he quit the 11-a-side sport. After he moved age-groups and not keen on the prospect of compete over the longer 6km distance – he previously competed over 4km - the Cullinane College student moved to the track and quickly graduated to the 800m.
“I was never really fast enough for the 400m and I’m too big for the 1500m,” explains the 76kg athlete. “I’m probably a bit heavier than most of the other runners, but I’m a similar build to Peter Snell. One day I hope to follow in his footsteps and get his national record (of 1:44.3 which still stands today after it was set some 53 years ago).”
Brad, who competed back then for Athletics Wanganui, continued to progress and in 2012, aged just 18, he grabbed his first senior national 800m title in Auckland. Later that year he qualified for the New Zealand team at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona and despite picking up an injury on the eve of the event he felt much better prepared than in Singapore.
“I knew what I was facing and I was aware of the protocol and procedures,” Brad explains. “Unfortunately, in my first race in Europe I pulled quad muscle in Germany and then reinjured the muscle in my heat (at the World Junior Championships where he finished fourth and failed to progress to the semi-finals) and it hampered my performance. Yet it (the World Junior experience) reminded me where I wanted to be performing.”
Leading into the event held at the 1992 Olympic Stadium he had split from his former coach Alan Rubick and he was setting his own programmes. Yet on his return to New Zealand he started to be coached by Maria Hassan – a move which the 800m athlete has been instrumental in his subsequent success.
“She’s an amazing coach,” adds Brad, who now competes for Christchurch Old Boys United AC. “Her main quality is she treats her athletes like we are her own children and looks after our interests so well. She’s knows middle-distance running inside out and there is so much thought goes into the planning of her programme.”
In April 2013 he relocated from his home town of Wanganui to be based by Maria in Christchurch. He describes the shift south as “a big move” but one that the Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Canterbury says has been “the making of me.”
Thriving in a high-class training group that includes both Commonwealth 800m finalist Angie Petty and World Championship-bound teenage steeplechase sensation Rosa Flanagan there is no opportunity for Brad to take his foot off the pedal.
“The key for me has been training with a few of the younger guys who have really helped me when I have been struggling in my longer runs and my tempo runs,” he adds. “It makes training more enjoyable. I do my longer runs with Rosa. She really keeps me honest because I never want her to beat me.”
Mistakes have still been made. In 2013 and 2014 when working under the advice of a second coach Brad put too much emphasis on speed work and despite winning successive national 800m titles and whittling his PB down to 1:48.81 he was far from satisfied. Cue big changes to his training regime last winter.
Under Maria’s sole direction he upped his weekly training load from around 60km to 90-100km per week. The greater aerobic work has given him superior strength and greater confidence. Meanwhile, he has also sought to correct a number of muscle imbalances with the help of leading sports scientist Matt Ingram and physio Tamsin Chittock in an effort to “iron out the kinks and gain those one percent improvements.”
In 2015 he has been rewarded for the best season of his career so far. After opening up with a routine win at the Potts Classic in Hastings he crossed the Tasman and trimmed 0.11 from his PB with 1.48.70 in Canberra. Two weeks later he ran 1:47.91 for fourth in Adelaide. Brad disappointed to place third at the Auckland Track Challenge in 1:49.40 before racking up an unprecedented fourth successive New Zealand men’s 800m title - albeit finishing 0.07 behind two-time US Olympian Andrew Wheating in the final in Wellington.
Yet his final race of the summer in Sydney provided the undoubted highlight. Pitched in the same race as David Rudisha, the Olympic 800m champion and world record holder, Mathas ran a time of 1:47.39 for third behind the Kenya two-lap icon. The performance elevated Brad to 11th on the all-time New Zealand rankings but the Kiwi still saw room for improvement.
“I was definitely happy and it was awesome to be racing David Rudisha and grabbing a photo with him afterwards was crazy,” he adds. “Yet I walked off the track feeling so strong that I think I could have gone faster.”
In fact, he concluded his 2015 domestic campaign frustrated rather than elated.
“This season I’ve been in the shape of life and I didn’t feel the times have reflected that,” he admits. “I’ve made a huge jump in terms of my PB but my training times suggested I could have run even faster. I’m happy, but I always want more. Coming into the World University Games I’m expecting good things.”
Since wrapping up his season the Canterbury athlete has returned to training to rebuild his aerobic base and also work on his speed – an area he knows he must improve upon should he go on to succeed on the global stage at World Championships and Olympics Games.
In the short-term, though, his next main target is the World University Games in Gwangju where Brad has set himself a clear target.
“The aim is to make the final,” he adds. “A definite personal goal would be to medal but to make the final is the number one objective. Then once in a final anything can happen in an 800m.”
Yet beyond medals, PB’s and finals the rising Kiwi 800m talent has another more general motivation for being involved in athletics.
“I love the fact that the onus is on me to control how successful I am,” he explains. “I love working hard – that is my biggest drive.”