The Wyatt brothers – Matthew and Phillip - are currently dominating the New Zealand horizontal jumps scene. Steve Landells chats to the Auckland-based siblings and discovers a pair driven by a desire to reach the very top.
Perhaps it was the countless races up and down their driveway or the tireless leaps from the lounge floor in an effort to touch the ceiling which provided the foundation for the athletics skills of the Wyatt brothers – Matthew and Phillip.
Yet whatever it was the New Zealand long and triple jump champions, respectively, have long held a fierce passion for the sport which they hope will one day lead to success on the international stage.
One thing is for sure, if desire and dogged determination are two attributes which can unlock the key to success then the spring-heeled siblings possess both qualities in abundance.
Characteristics first revealed on the driveway of their family home in the Auckland suburb of New Windsor, where each day after school would follow a similar pattern.
“We had about a 30-40m driveway and we would race each other up and down it every day for a couple of hours until dinner,” explains Matthew, 23, the older of the two brothers by three years. “I believe it was the best training we ever did.”
So who used to get the better of these marathon sprint sessions on the driveway?
“There was a handicap system, but it was a little biased because there was one person making the handicap,” admits Phillip of his brother’s slightly dictatorial role in the pre-race grading.”I think it was slightly rigged because every race I’d finish half-a-metre behind,” he adds with a smile.
“We were obsessed with track and field (as youngsters). We loved sprinting and jumping and we would challenge each other and spur each other on to run faster and jump further.”
“Most kids play a winter sport do athletics in the summer and wait for their winter sport season to start, but for us it would the other way around,” admits Matthew.
In some respects their passion for track and field is understandable as the family is rooted in the sport. Their father, Peter, a former discus thrower, is chairman of Athletics Auckland and President at Roskill South AAC – where both boys began their formal athletics apprenticeship and are still involved today.
Matthew started out as a gifted sprinter winning 100m gold at the Colgate Games. By contrast, Phillip principally began his athletics career as a long jumper, where he too snared a Colgate Games title.
Yet while the younger Wyatt has remained permanently wedded to the sport, since his introduction at the age of two, Matthew took a four-year break from the athletics to focus on competitive golf.
“I stopped doing athletics partly because I was no longer performing at a top level after making that transition from junior to seniors (aged 14),” he explains frankly. “The seniors seemed like a different world and the hot meets concept was too intimidating for me.”
Yet in his late teens his passion for athletics was reignited after “tagging along” to watch his kid brother at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships. Inspired by Phillip, Matthew, chose to compete, where he finished fourth in the triple jump. He was bitten by the bug again and reunited with the sport.
Yet here is the confusing part. If Phillip was then primarily a long jumper and Matthew a triple jumper, why is it that they now focus on the opposite events?
“Because Elena (Vinogradova), my coach, told me to do the long jump,” admits Matthew, who is studying the final year of a Masters degree in Architecture, matter-of-factly. “Phillip had always been a long jumper because he had great elasticity and could jump high, so we figured back then that I would be better at the triple jump because I didn’t need that same level of verticality. Yet after I first joined Elena’s group she said my pop up (off the board) was the best she’d even seen and from that day forth I’ve focused on the long jump.”
Phillip – who competed in long, high and triple jump – later switched his attention to the latter event because he believed he did not have the raw speed required to excel at long jump or the pure height needed to master the high jump.
“We could have done well at national level in a couple of jumping events, but we were focused beyond that (national level),” admits Matthew. “So we took up events that we believe can take us to the highest level.”
So far the decision has proved a wise one as the pair have secured back-to-back national long and triple jump titles, respectively.
Matthew and Phillip have also thrived under the astute coaching of the Russian-born Vinogradova, who has given the Wyatts a clear insight into the requirements needed to become international athletes.
“Before being coached by Elena we used to turn up to training in a pair of jandals, a singlet and a pair of baggy running shorts,” adds Matthew. “We were performing well on natural talent, but we hardly trained during the week and coached each other on a weekend. Joining Elena’s group we saw how leading athletes such as Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games trio Brent Newdick (Note, Brent is no longer coached by Elena) Scott McLaren and Sarah Cowley approached the sport. We realised track was their lives and no part-time gig.”
Bolstered by a new more professional attitude the pair have progressed nicely. They have established themselves as the event leaders of their respective events in New Zealand. Yet there is a deeper motivation for developing as athletes and that could be found in each other.
“We do spur each other on,” admits Matthew. ”It has been quite a blessing that we have fallen into two different events, but also two events that are quite similar. It helps that we are at a similar level to many training elements and that there is a balance to the things we are best at.”
“We both know each other’s needs,” adds Phillip, who says the pair will carry the other person’s bag during competition and act as a key support aid.
So given that there is “a balance” in training strengths, what different qualities do the pair possess as athletes?
“Phillip has a natural elasticity that I perhaps don’t have,” answers Matthew. “In training, Phillip will do better in anything that involves plyometric work.”
Meanwhile, Phillip – who is studying a Business degree at Massey University - believes Matthew holds an advantage in the power and speed department.
“If it is a 40m sprint (just like those childhood battles down the driveway) he will beat me,” adds Phillip.
The pair may be a huge source of support and motivation for each other, but like any set of siblings they are fiercely competitive.
Training sessions can be ferociously contested as the pair battle it out for the latest bragging rights to be discussed over dinner at their parent’s Blockhouse Bay home, which their also share with their younger sister, Rebecca, a former competitive triple jumper.
Yet aside from training which of the siblings got the better of their last competitive clash?
“For the last couple of years Matthew has always beaten me in competition,” Phillip admits. “Each year I choose one random competition per year that fits between triple jump competitions to have a crack at the 7m mark in long jump. Last time Matthew beat me and I also just missed out on 7m (Phillip’s PB is 6.94m).”
Yet the next battle between the pair is still some time away. The pair are fully focused on their respective events and there is no glass ceiling in terms of their future ambitions.
“We are both pretty insistent we want to one day compete at the top level - Olympic Games and World Championships,” adds Matthew. “Early next year I would like to break the national record of 8.05m (set by Bob Thomas in 1968) and at some point win a Commonwealth Games medal.”
Phillip matches his sibling’s ambitions and hopes to next year better the national triple jump record of 16.22m (posted by Phil Wood in 1978) before one day cracking the 17m barrier.
“Ever since both of us joined the squad our focus was never on national level it was competing internationally, which is the same way Elena thinks as a former international athlete,” admits Matthew.
A dream first harboured a decade-and-a-half ago on that Auckland driveway.
Event: Long Jump
Biggest Achievements: 2013 and 2014 New Zealand long jump champion
Event: Triple Jump
Biggest Achievements: 2013 and 2014 New Zealand triple jump champion
Pictured Phillip Wyatt winning the 2014 NZ triple jump title in Wellington. Image by MacSpeed.