The Long Run of Matt Elliott

How a 2016 Olympic hopeful came from behind, again and again, and wound up where he was never supposed to be.
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There were not all that many people in the stands on a sweltering summer day in Des Moines, Iowa at the 2013 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. It was 93 degrees, and it was the biggest day of Matt Elliott's life to that point.

Weather aside, it was strange that he was there in the first place. Elliott ran a 4:42 mile in high school, a time that's impressive to the outsider, but which does not inspire much hope in Division I track and field coaches.  Elliott had to beg his coach at Winthrop University to let him on the team to use his fifth year of eligibility.  Elliott is a teacher at the Palmetto School at the Children’s Attention Home, a charter school for children currently in government custody who have been abused, neglected and abandoned. To a casual observer, Elliott was just a committed K-2 teacher at a charter school who happened to be in very good shape. He was standing on a track, in that flat Iowa heat, along with some of the best runners in the world.

Matthew Centrowitz had finished fourth at the 2012 Summer Olympics in the 1500 meters and ran for the University of Oregon, one of the top track and field programs in the country. At Oregon, Centrowitz helped break the NCAA mile relay record and won the Pac-10 title in the 1500 meters.

Leo Manzano won the silver medal in the 1500 meter at the 2012 Olympics. While at the University of Texas, Mazano won five NCAA National Championship titles and earned All-American honors nine times.

Lopez Lomong qualified for the 2008 Summer Olympics and was one of the flag bearers for the United States. Lomong came over the United States at the age of 16 as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and is one of the great success stories in the sport.

Elliott, for his part, was a 28-year-old from Green Sea, S.C. who had never competed in an NCAA or USATF final race before. “You’d never heard of him unless you live in Rock Hill, South Carolina,” Runners World said of Elliott in June, 2013. There were, we might as well assume, a lot of people in Rock Hill that didn't know who he was, either.

But Matt Elliott knew, or thought he knew, something that everyone else didn't. “I knew that if I kicked some of these guys down like I did in the [preliminary],” Elliott said, “why couldn't I do it again?”

***

Matt Elliott was born on September 8, 1985 as the first child of Phyllis Elliott-Elvington. He grew up in Green Sea, a small coastal town near Myrtle Beach. Both Elliott’s mother and father were teachers.

Elliott began to run at age three, when he followed his dad around. When Elliott was six years old, his father passed away at the age of 40 following an accident.

“´╗┐Back then, you really don't know a whole lot about what's going on," Elliott said. “I was in the first grade at the time. Looking back now, I wish my dad could be here to see me run.” After his father passed, Elliott and his mother found a cause of sorts in his running.

“At the end of the year, we would have field day,” Elliott-Elvington said. “I always put Matthew in the longest races that you could run in. He was running in memory of his dad.”

Elliott’s mother eventually remarried to Charles Elvington, the athletic director of Elliott’s high school, Green Sea Floyds High. At the school, both Elliott’s mother and stepfather coached the track and field team and the cross country team.

“My mom and my stepdad, who I call my dad, they were my coaches starting in the eighth grade in track,” Elliott said. “They really taught me how to just love the sport of running.”

His mother, biased though she undoubtedly is, noticed her son's passion for the sport. “It was a joy to have an athlete like Matthew on your team because they were driven,” Elliott-Elvington says. “You didn't have to pull something up that wasn't there.” Elliott instinctively understood that as his job.

***

Elite runners such as Centrowitz, Manzano and Lomong ran mile times that neared the four minute mark. Elliott ran a 4:42 mile in high school. Considering his performance in high school, Elliott had no vision of running professionally, or even running against the champions who joined him on the starting line in Iowa.

“I wasn't even running in spikes in high school,” Elliott said. “I didn't really know much about the professional level or the Division I type of realm. I really didn't know what it looked like. I had never researched any colleges for running. I was just happy to get some offers to run at some small colleges because I loved running so much.”

Elliott eventually got his opportunity to run at Presbyterian College, a Division II program. The school, however, did not have a track team. Instead, Elliott began to run on the cross country team, which did not suit his strengths.

As a result, Elliott started his collegiate career with among the slowest times on the team. Despite the struggles, Elliott-Elvington was confident that her son would eventually work his way through initial adversity.

“When he got to Presbyterian, he started at the bottom of the pack,” Elliott-Elvington said. “On the first day of training, when he came in seventh out of ten, my husband, Charles, said that it wouldn't be long before he's leading that pack. Of course, that was true.”

Elliott began to shine at Presbyterian College, where he majored in Early Childhood Education. In his senior year, Elliott began to adopt a weightlifting program that would eventually prove crucial towards his success in track and field. After a successful four years at Presbyterian, Elliott went to Winthrop University, to get his masters degree in Physical Education. Elliott wanted to use his fifth year of NCAA eligibility at Winthrop, but despite his success at Presbyterian, Elliott had trouble getting a spot on the team.

“I tried to contact the coach at Winthrop for about six months, emails, phone calls,” Elliott said. “Nothing.”

That Palmer, Elliott's coach at Presbyterian,  leaned on Winthrop coach Ben Paxton to secure his former star a spot on the team. It worked but, as at Presbyterian, Elliott struggled at the start.

“I was getting smashed really the first month of the season,” Elliott said. “I was finishing around seventh, eighth and ninth on the team out of nine.”

That was October. By January, he was running with the top group and in January, Elliott broke Winthrop's record in the mile with a 4:14 time. From there, Elliott began to improve exponentially, largely in part due to a consistent training schedule.

“I could just tell that the consistent training was good for me,” Elliott said. “That we were doing workouts on the same days every week and doing long runs on the same days every week and I had people to run with me that were on my level.”

At Winthrop, Elliott met Greg Adamson, the current Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Tennessee. The two became fast friends due to their common interest in strength and conditioning. Elliott began to follow a structured regimen to get stronger. He just kept on getting better. And then he graduated.

***

 

During his first two years at the Palmetto School at the Children’s Attention Home, in Rock Hill, Elliott served as the Physical Education Teacher. His kids would run a mile at the end of every week.

“There would be a seven year old kid who has never had anyone invest in their life," Adamson sad. "Then they have [Matt], who is an elite-level athlete, helping them learn. Whatever it is, he's teaching them the exact right way and he's putting as much preparation into it as anybody, just like his running.”

After taking a year off from teaching to train in Indiana, Elliott returned to Palmetto as a full-time K-2 teacher. Many of his students in his classroom read well-below age level.

“Ninety percent of my kids are behind in school when they get to me, so there is kind of a sense of urgency to get them caught up and get them ready for when they do leave,” Elliott said. “A lot of these kids have come from really unstructured environments where a parent has sometimes not even been around at all. So they've been raising their toddler sibling and been in charge of taking care of themselves in the house at five and six years old.”

Dr. Hugh Wilson, the Principal and Executive Director of the Palmetto School, has been impressed by Elliott’s ability to empathize with his students.

“We had a child that started that couldn't even identify the letters and now she is reading at an almost first grade level,” Wilson said. “That type of instruction is phenomenal and very powerful for a kid. [Elliott’s] determination to getting them to identify letters and then begin reading was amazing. The three kids that came in his classroom came to me and said, ‘Look what Mr. Matt taught me!’”

***

“My time is very structured," Elliott says of his routine, which begins when his alarm goes off between 5:45 and 6am. "It's going to be impossible to fit it in so I have to do it now at this time of the day or it won't get done.”

Monday through Friday, Elliott runs twice a day. In addition, Elliott swims and lifts weights twice a week. After finishing his morning routine, Elliott heads to school and begins his workday. It's a routine he built with Adamson's help, and which has led Elliott to think of his training and recovery as a constant and unending process.

“That's got to be your mindset,” Adamson said. “You have to stretch, you have to warm up, you have to cool down, you have to get in the pool. You have to go eat right. We were in a wedding together and I'll never forget, it was 2012 and he went to have a cookie and I said, man, 'I wouldn't eat that cookie if I were you. That's not worth it.' He ate the cookie and then he managed to not qualify by half a second. I don't know if it's the difference of a cookie, but it's a mindset of that's how you've got to live every single day.”

If it sounds like an uneasy and stressful way to live… well, it is. “I've always been battling with nerves and I'm still kind of struggling with that,” Elliott said. "I just really want to run some good times and put some good marks out there and do it for everyone that has been pulling for me because I know a lot of people are in my corner, but I just have got to get back to having fun with the sport.”

Adamson sees this process as the greater part of his job.

“I'm not necessarily a strength coach, I'm a confidence coach,” Adamson says. “When you see yourself stronger in the weight room, you PR in a squat, you PR in your snatch, he jumps higher than he's ever jumped. I would say that I saw him become more explosive and I saw his confidence because of it. He started running like that. He started running with that confidence.”

***

Elliott's strategy in Iowa was to save his best for the final 100 meters, but it was 93 degrees and this was a big race—strategy was one thing, and the race was something else. Elliott was in the middle of the pack as the runners embarked on their final lap. Instead of making a move, Elliott fell behind, as far back as second-to-last. Then Elliott began to drive into another gear and began to weave his way through the pack, slowly inching his way towards the front.

“I could just feel it as I was going around that track and just staying right with the pack," Elliott said. "I knew with how I felt.”

With only 100 meters left, Elliott had a shot at finishing in the top three. With less than 100 meters left in the race, Elliott was in fifth, trailing only the three Olympians, 2013 NCAA Champion Mac Fleet, and Will Leer, an extremely experienced runner with a decorated college running resumé from Pomona College. Suddenly, things began to slow down, and Elliott seemed to speed up.

“[Greg] says that you know you've made it when everything is kind of in slow motion, that you're in that much control mentally and physically that you're totally aware of what's going on around you, even though you're going 100 percent all out,” Elliott said. “That's the first time in my life that I've ever really fully achieved that.”

And Elliott weaved past both Fleet and Leer, finally finishing behind the three Olympians, Centrowitz, Manzano and Lomong. The only runners to finish ahead of a kid who begged to be on his college track team were three of the most decorated American runners alive. That kid's first thought, after crossing the finish line, was frustration with himself for not having passed Lopez Lomong.

It was only until he had a moment to cool down that Elliott realized what he had accomplished.

“When they handed me that World Championship qualifying card that says that you've qualified for the world championship, all of the emotion kind of hit me,” Elliott said. “How many times in your life are you going to get that?” That emotion showed in a post-race interview with FloTrack.com that became a modest viral hit. His Twitter and Facebook pages were awash in praise from the track and field community, friends and family and strangers alike.

“I'll never give up on Matthew and I don't ever count him out because he could be at the number eight spot and that boy's got another gear from somewhere that he can reach down and get,” his mother said. “He did not find that gear until the 11th grade. He didn't know for sure that he could reach out and pass somebody, because you're taking a risk when you're doing that. You come to a point in running where you have to believe in you more than anybody else.”

Elliott, who is currently training to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, is working on building up that belief just as surely as he's working on getting his body to the next, Olympian level.

“I got just as good a chance as anybody that puts on their shoes that day to make the team and finish in the top three because it will be tactical,” Elliott said. “It will be a tough race and I know that I've got the tools physically to do it. These next two years, I have to learn to train my mind as I train my body.”

Adamson, for his part, believes that Elliott has the potential to win Olympic Gold at some point in the future.

“That's the goal and that's got to be the mindset,” Adamson said. “That's got to be what he's working towards. If you win every race you're in, eventually you're going to be at the top. That's the goal. Beat everybody. Screw the times. That's where he's really matured and grown. He's going out to run races to win.” Elliott has won his chance. The goal, now, is to keep on winning.

All photos courtesy of Matt Elliott.


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