Athlete's Corner #3: Matthew Wright
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
For the third edition of Athlete’s Corner we are delighted to introduce a friend of ours and fellow Loughborough University graduate, Barbadian professional triathlete Matthew Wright. Two-time Commonwealth Games athlete, and currently chasing the New Flag qualification spot for the Olympic Games, we spoke to Matt about his journey in Triathlon and why he’s continuing to chase his Olympic dream after overcoming several injury setbacks in recent years.
Toe The Line: How and why did you get in to triathlon?
Matt: I got my first taste of triathlon at 8 years old, doing the swim and the run in a relay at the monthly tri kids series at the Barbados Aquatic Centre. My PE teacher in primary school put me up for it, I’m guessing it was because I was one of the better swimmers in the school and played pretty much every sport. I then did my first full triathlon a month later and was hooked.
TTL: And 20 years later, why are you still doing triathlon today?
MW: Good question! And on reflection I think the main reason is because I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to reach my ceiling in the sport. I am 28 but have missed a lot of consistent training time with injury, especially at the crucial development stage when leaving the junior ranks. I’m still building towards my body giving me 18 months of consistent training and seeing what that could do, as I have yet to experience that in my career without a lengthy break from of at least one of the three disciplines.
On top of that, being able to travel the world and train with your mates everyday isn’t a terrible life to have either!
TTL: After your first few years in the sport, when did you first form the idea of trying to qualify for the Olympics?
MW: I first had discussions about it in my first year at Loughborough University (2011), with the London Olympics happening the following year. I’d had a lot of success in my first year, I’d come on leaps and bounds as I’d never trained so much or been in a performance environment like that in Barbados. However, I tore a ligament in my knee that summer, and was only 19 at the time, so in hindsight we were a little premature with those ambitions.
TTL: After that you set your sights on the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, what where the qualifying criteria for Barbados?
MW: For the Commonwealth Games the criteria were quite straight forward, I had to compete in an ITU Olympic distance race (WTS, World Cup or Continental Cup) and complete it in a time under 1hr 56 minutes.
TTL: And what was that first Commonwealth Games experience like in Glasgow?
MW: It was something really special, I can’t even express it to be honest. I’d had three seasons with three very big injuries leading into 2014, with two years without a single race and I’d kind of lost my way and focus at the time.
But those Games gave me my first opportunity to race with the best of the best. Being able to firsthand see (from a very far way behind!) what the top level of the sport looks like left me in awe, refocussed me and relit that sporting flame per say.
TTL: After Glasgow you set your eyes on Rio - tell us about the qualification process, what criteria you had to meet and how close you got?
MW: The qualification involved a points collection process of 14 races spread across two 1-year periods, mid 2014-15 and mid 2015-16. These points could only be collected from WTS, World Cup or Continental Championship races.
I realistically was nowhere near qualifying. By halfway through 2015 I hadn’t collected any worthwhile points, chose the wrong races at the wrong time, got a foot injury that stopped me running during the summer and I don’t think we truly mapped out or understood what was needed to be done to qualify. To top it off I spent February to August of 2016 unable to run a single step due to said foot injury and racing myself into the ground for no real reason in 2015. Hindsight is 2020.
TTL: Then, in 2018 you’d qualified for the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast but broke your elbow in the preparation, how did you have to re-evaluate your race preparation and race goals for this one?
MW: I broke my elbow in a bike crash 7 weeks before the Games and had to have surgery, which involved a metal plate being put into my elbow. I was in a sling for about 3-4 weeks I think, so this took me out of swimming, I couldn’t run for that time and could only ride easy one handed on the trainer. Because of the metal plate, it was safe once the wound had healed and the stitches healed to start doing things, albeit very painfully. I ended up doing a lot of different things to try keep some semblance of fitness, like using the elliptical, rowing machine, long walks with my Mum, plenty of kicking and 1 arm swimming/sculling in the pool. On top of that I was doing physio 5 times a week to try get my arm straightening as quickly as possible. I did my first road ride the week before I left for Australia and my first full swim stroke with the broken arm the day before the race. It was a pretty brutal time I’m not going to lie.
So basically, my race goal was not to drown! But seriously, we were just going to be happy to finish the race in a respectable way and give as good of an account as possible given the circumstances. Getting to the start line was a win in itself, excuse the cliché.
TTL: After leaving Loughborough you moved to Canada to train, but it didn’t take too long before you moved back to the UK. What was the main motivation behind your move to the NTPCW in Cardiff?
I had moved to the Triathlon Canada High Performance Centre in Guelph, Canada after I graduated from Loughborough in 2015. However, after the Rio Olympics, Triathlon Canada got a large funding cut, and the centre was closed. My coach had been there for 10 years at this point and decided to continue working with the athletes there and then formed his own set up called the Guelph Triathlon Project
But the following years post Rio, a few senior athletes moved on/retired and the squad became a little more focussed on development and didn’t feel like the right environment for what I needed anymore.
In parallel, since the beginning of 2017 I had started noticing a few of my old training partners from Loughborough had moved down to Cardiff and were doing really well training there and improving a lot. To top it off, my old training partner and housemate Luke Watson had become head coach. Chatting to a few of the guys at races etc it seemed like they had a real nice set up and environment down there.
During the summer of 2018, when things weren’t working out in Guelph, I gave Luke a call and asked if he had space for a Bajan lad! We chatted for over an hour and I came away feeling really positive. I went to Cardiff at the end of 2018 to try it out for a few weeks and even with the non-stop rain (welcome back to the UK), I felt comfortable and I knew it was the right place for me.
TTL: You set your eyes on Tokyo - tell us about the qualification process again, the criteria you had to meet and how the points chasing went?
MW: Like Rio, qualification is a 2-year points collecting process, as two 1-year periods, from May 2018-May 2019 and May 2019-(what was) May 2020. The only difference is it was now 12 races as opposed to 14.
However, I had an unfortunate crash in one of my key Olympic qualifying races of the first period at the Pan Am Championships in May 2019, so that changed my qualifying path. We were then forced to go for the New Flag position for the Americas. (Editors note: For those who don’t know the system, there is an Olympic spot available for an athlete from countries in each of the 4 continents who are not in the Olympic Qualifying simulation, it is based solely on World Ranking points, so Continental Cups also count here, and the highest ranked athlete from each continent in (what was) mid May 2020 would gain that spot.)
Once again though, I had a bit of a spanner in the works. I got a stress fracture in my right foot in the middle of February, meaning I wouldn’t be back to full running safely until mid May and I was in a boot for the first 4 weeks which meant no riding for that time either. With qualifying due to finish in the middle of May, that meant Tokyo was out of the question, as I would’ve barely been ready for one race by that time, let alone 6.
TTL: Are you now still able to qualify for 2021? Was it a relief when the games were pushed back?
MW: Well, the ITU have said technically they will give the athletes that same March to May period back in 2021. But this involves every country being back to normal, the borders open, and the athletes having equal training opportunities globally. So, in theory I will have the same opportunity as this year, yes. But who knows what will happen? I am just going to put my head down for 6 months, train as hard as I can pressure free and see what 2021 brings. I’m excited to just put some good consistent training in regardless.
It was a pretty mad time after I’d got the injury and the emotional rollercoaster that followed, my Olympic plans were over just like that. I was pretty shattered emotionally and mentally, I had so many people who were in my corner that I felt I’d let down, and some hard questions I had to ask myself. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to carry on with the sport. If I was in it for the right reasons. But then the pandemic happened, I had 5 months of ‘guilt free’ time to reassess and reflect on the last few years.
I don’t know if relief about the Olympics being cancelled is the right word, as I still don’t know how I feel if I’m completely honest. In theory, by a complete miracle I have this opportunity back that is just absolutely nuts and so hard to even believe. On the other hand, on reflection, it was a pretty rough 2 years, I got into a really bad place mentally, and got completely overrun with the obsession and self pressure of qualifying, and that then affected all aspects of my life.
So my plan for now is to rediscover my love for the process and enjoyment of training, enjoying my environment, the amazing people I get to work with everyday, being thankful that I can do this as my job and represent Barbados all over the world. Just get back into that great space of showing up day in day out, putting in good consistent work, and enjoying the improvements come from that. As opposed to pinning every single session on the fact ‘I’m trying to qualify for the Olympics’ and need to be at X level everyday, which is the rabbit hole I got caught in over the last few years.
TTL: Tell us some of the best and most far fetched places you have raced in order to get points?
This is probably the biggest thing us triathletes take for granted, sometimes letting all these amazing places blend into just hotel rooms and race courses. But we are really blessed with all the countries we get to travel to annually.
My all-time favourite place (outside of my home race in Barbados obviously!) is Miyazaki, Japan. Even though I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese, the people were so warm and welcoming. But there have been so many gems I’ve been to over the years.
I think Astana, Kazakhstan is probably the most unlikely place I’ve gone to on the old points chase though.
TTL: Finally, what keeps you motivated to chase the Olympics despite having to reassess, change goals, and overcome adversity so many times?
MW: I think it’s this inner feeling that my journey isn’t over. As you said there has been so much adversity and setbacks throughout my career, and a few times the big ones have come at a time when I’ve felt like I was on the cusp of something special or a breakthrough.
I’ve had some bad luck, but I’ve also got to look at myself and ask the question why has it continued to go that way? I’m a big believer that the energy you create for yourself and your mindset dictates your path, and if you live by a ‘why always me’, it will always be you.
I could probably write a book on the last 10 years with the things I’ve been through. But I’ve figured out I’ve always acknowledged the past hiccups, and I think I’m only now truly attempting to learn from them. That is an exciting prospect for me and why I want to give this a few more years and see if we can make it a fulfilling ending.
Thanks Matt, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, now’s your chance if you want to give a shout out to sponsors, partners and supporters if you want
Thanks, I’d definitely like to give a shout out to BFIT (Barbados Federation of Island Triathletes) and the great man in charge president Darren Treasure who has done so much for myself and the sport as a whole in Barbados and the Caribbean over the last few years. Also, the Barbados Olympic Association, Arts and Sport Foundation of Barbados, Amarone Charitable Trust and Terra Caribbean, and the ASICS World Triathlon team who’s funding and support has allowed me to chase that Olympic dream and continue to stay in the sport. Would have to be on the 9-5 without them. I’m rolling around on the awesome Welsh owned and built CES sport wheels and swimming in HUUB design kit for this year as well so thanks to them for being on board. And of course, my family, friends, coach and everyone who supports me and has followed along on my pretty bumpy journey.