If four years is a long time to wait for a shot at redemption, then five years is even longer. But Australian Olympian Luke Mathews isn’t complaining. Time is on his side now.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were supposed to be the 24-year-old’s chance to prove he can perform on Broadway, but a nagging foot injury at the start of the year threatened to derail his season before it had even started.
When the International Olympic Committee surrendered to the inevitable and postponed this year’s Games by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mathews was overcome with relief.
His chance to atone for a disappointing debut appearance in Rio de Janeiro – where he was knocked out in the heats of both the 800m and 1500m and failed to reach the heights he set earlier that year – wasn’t going to be ruined by the dreaded plantar fasciitis.
If 2020 hadn’t been so 2020, Mathews would have just returned from Japan – or maybe he wouldn’t have got there in one piece. Now he is counting his blessings at a time when the sporting world is tiptoeing out of its biggest challenge ever.
“I was one of the unique ones where coronavirus and quarantine – I don’t want to say too much positive about it – but it has been a blessing in disguise because I tore my plantar fasciitis which is the arch of your foot,” Mathews told Man of Style.
“I got a bit of a lucky break in a way because I was injured and hobbling on it and trying to run through it. But then the whole athletics world got put on pause and I got two or three months to let it recover.
“For me, it was probably a bit of a relief and a breath of fresh air. For pretty much all of January and February, I was worried about what I was going to do. I’d already got a cortisone in my foot, so I was thinking, do I need to get another cortisone? And then another cortisone? Do I need to constantly get anaesthetic on it? Do I need to get anti-inflammatories? I was thinking my whole year I was going to have to be medicated the whole way through. So for me, it was a massive relief.”
Rio pain driving Tokyo mission
Not a day goes by without Mathews’ mind scrolling back to Brazil. It was the best and worst meet of his career to date. He realised a lifelong dream by qualifying for two events at the age of just 21. But to fall well short of his expectations and his personal best times – he finished second last in the 1500m heats and fourth last in the 800m heats – crushed the lightly built, confident middle-distanced star.
“For me, getting to Rio, it was a big deal qualifying, not only for one event, but for two events. At the time, when you’re so young and inexperienced, you think when you qualify you can go there and try and win a medal, when in reality, that’s really, really hard to do,” he said.
“When I got over to Rio, I was so fatigued that I honestly had no petrol left in the tank. When you end up finishing in the 30s and the 40s, you end up pretty heartbroken. I didn’t get to appreciate reaching the Olympics until a couple of months later when I realised it was pretty special to get there and a lifelong goal.
“Everything since then has been a little bit about redemption. But I think you can only redeem yourself at the next Olympics. My first one was a big deal to qualify. The next one was going to be the one where I hoped to run really well. That’s where I was setting up for 2020.
“I got thrown a bit of a curveball with this injury and now coronavirus, but now I essentially get another 12 months to focus and I’ll be another year older and another year wiser.”
One of the biggest changes Mathews has made since Rio is the person who advises him. He sensationally split with his coach Nic Bideau on the eve of the 2017 world championships in London, returning to his first athletics coach – his mum, Elizabeth Mathews – who has guided him ever since.
Team Mathews has reached new heights since then. Luke performed strongly at that world championships, reaching the semi-finals in the 1500m after winning his heat, and then won the national title a couple of months later.
He then produced the best performance of his career on home soil at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, winning the Bronze Medal in the 800m on the Gold Coast to take another step towards redemption.
Mathews doesn’t think he would have reached this point without the guidance of his mum – or his family, for that matter. His older brother Ryan and sister Michelle were underage distance running stars, blazing the trail for the youngest Mathews.
And then there is his best friend – Western Bulldogs midfielder Lachie Hunter – who has also been there every step of the way. They both grew up in Melbourne’s western suburbs and both attended St Kevin’s College in Toorak.
They were underage stars in high school and now one has progressed to win a premiership and emerge as one of the best wingmen in the AFL, while the other has established himself as the best 800m runner in the country.
“I remember in 2016 we had a couple of beers late in the year and we both had a chat about how cool it was that two best mates in the same year – one won a grand final and the other went to the Olympics,” he said.
“Sport is only a small fraction of our friendship, but when we do speak about sport it is cool to chat about the high-performance perspective of both sports.
“I think it kind of cool while I’m doing sport to have someone who I’m super close with to be sharing a similar journey in a different sport.”
When the Tokyo Games finally arrive next year, Mathews will be 25 and a much more experienced athlete than the one who turned up in Rio de Janeiro five years earlier.
And when he gets there, he will be one of the athletes who found a silver lining amid the doom and gloom of the COVID-19 crisis.