The Earth Fed Elite squad is taking on THE ENTIRE WORLD this summer! This article outlines the story of Olympic Discus Thrower Sam Mattis and his journey to the pinnacle of American Discus. Stay tuned for the stories behind our other Earth Fed Olympians!
2021 EFM Olympic Squad: Kat Holmes (Fencing), Harrison Maurus (Weightlifting), Alex Rose (Track & Field), and Sam Mattis (Track & Field)
Sam Mattis is a professional discus thrower. He spins one and a half times in a concrete circle and attempts to throw a plate-shaped metal object as far as he can. Sam stumbled onto the glamorous path of discus throwing by stumbling over a hurdle in eighth grade. Luckily for him, his failed track career turned into a successful field career in a few years.
From a personal best of 77 feet after his first discus competition, Sam went on to win three NJ State Championships (2010-2012), two New Balance High School National Championships (2011-2012), four Ivy League Championships (2013-2016), one NCAA Championship (2015), and one USATF Championship (2019). Along the way he set the NJ state record and NCAA American record in discus, and has a personal best of 67.45 meters (221 feet).
In 2019, after winning USATF Championships with an Olympic-qualifying throw, Sam made the finals of the World Championships in Doha, where he finished 11th. In 2021 he made the 202One Olympic Team for the United States by placing third at Olympic Trials.
In his spare time Sam enjoys gardening, reading, video games, long walks in the woods and housing supplements. Once his body begins to decay and he can no longer keep up with competitive sport, he plans to pursue a career working towards environmental justice and a sustainable future.
Making the Team
Every track and field athlete’s dream is to make an Olympic Team. But once you decide to pursue a dream professionally, that dream becomes a little more complicated. And once you throw in a poorly managed pandemic and some injuries, training can go from a passion you’re excited about every day, to something you have a bit more of a nuanced relationship with.
Going into 2020, I was riding the momentum of a great 2019 season. I was lifting great, I was throwing far and it seemed like all the sacrifices and hard work of the last four years were going to pay off. Then Covid started; then Covid spread; then the Olympics got postponed; then a series of climate and social justice crises finally entered mainstream consciousness and caused widespread protests and societal turbulence; then in the midst of navigating all this, I seriously hurt my back. As a result, my preseason prep for 2021 was thrown way off track.
This season started out rough. I reinjured my back, hurt my groin and finished my first meet placing third from last, with a distance so bad I hadn’t seen it in a meet since my freshman year of college. What was worse, was that after five years of full-time training, I only had seven weeks left to fix everything that was wrong with my body, my technique and my mindset before Olympic Trials. When my parents came to pick me up from the airport on my way back from that first meet, I told them that I didn’t think I’d make the Olympic team. And in the back of my mind, I knew that once I missed the team, I was going to lose any opportunities at funding and prize money that I may have had; that I was going to spend the next three years of my life struggling to stay financially afloat until the next Olympics, much as I had spent the first three years after college struggling after not making the 2016 Team. The life of an Olympic sport athlete is rarely a glamorous one. After giving our maximum physical and mental effort in training everyday, most of us are lucky to clear the poverty line without another job. Making national teams, especially the Olympic team, is one of the few ways we can make some money and get any opportunity from sponsors.
Needless to say, I was not in the greatest spot mentally or physically with less than two months to go before Olympic Trials. But giving up after five years was not an option (besides, I had cleared my schedule of anything except training, so there was really nothing to do except train). With the support of my family and close friends, some serious mindfulness practice, and a plan from my coach, Dane Miller, of Garage Strength infamy, I kept my head down and just tried to get a little better each day. Some days I felt like I was progressing; some days I was left questioning my sanity and wondering if I had made any progress in over a decade of training. After seven weeks, I was finally feeling like I might have a shot at making the team if I performed at my best and maybe got a little lucky.
Luckily, at Trials, I got a little lucky. For the throws events, Olympic Trials is set up a bit differently than every other meet outside of World Championships and the Olympics - essentially, there’s a preliminary meet you have to get through before making it to the final competition. That added pressure, plus the pressure of Olympic Trials was just enough to throw off a few top competitors. Additionally, the meet itself was hot - historically hot thanks to the climate crisis our leaders pretend is too expensive to address - and run very slowly. What should have been a 40 minute competition was stretched out to an hour and a half for the tv audience. It’s tough to throw far when you’ve been baking in the sun for that long with no shade and no breeze. So somehow, my first throw - a fairly mediocre throw that I would not have dreamed of being happy with a year ago - held up for third. And by 4:40 that Friday evening in Oregon, I knew I was going to the Olympics.
It didn't feel real. It still doesn’t feel real. For the first week after Olympic Trials, it mostly felt like I underperformed at a big meet. And with all the logistical challenges still facing the Tokyo Olympics, sometimes it still feels like I’m stuck in 2020, training in a vacuum without a ton of certainty as to what lies ahead. But after being told repeatedly over the last few weeks that I am, indeed, going to the Olympics, and that the Olympics are, in fact, going to happen (though maybe this isn’t the greatest idea for global public health), training has started to feel good again. I feel like I’m working towards something bigger. And while the challenges and turbulence of the last five years of my life would have been well worth the effort for the journey alone, ending this chapter of that journey in Tokyo is pretty sweet.