A year ago, Matt Russell didn’t know how to swim. Now, the 28-year-old New York native is starting his second season as a professional triathlete.
“It keeps the mind really fresh,” said Russell, who moved to Austin in October, after three years as a professional duathlete, to perfect the swim stroke he taught himself. “It gives me a new challenge.”
Blue Norther Duathlon in Seguin last month. He was the male overall winner, finishing in 34:10.
Russell grew up in rural New York on a small farm. There were just 40 students in his school, which included grades K through 12. That’s where Russell said he discovered his passion for running. His tiny school only offered three team sports, so he commuted 20 minutes each way to another campus, where they agreed to let him run with the cross-country team. “I never had my true colors shine until I found individual sport,” he said.
But Russell’s youth wasn’t all shiny. When he was 8 years old, his mother, a kindergarten teacher, was diagnosed with Lou Gherig’s disease. She died when he was 13.
“It was tough, but God has a plan for everything,” Russell said. “I’ve learned a lot in the growing process.”
His mother’s motto – never give up and always try your best – has stuck with Russell and guided him.
At the University of New Hampshire, he walked onto the track team and wound up with a scholarship to run the steeplechase and 5K. He was on the cycling team, too. After graduating with a master’s degree in occupational therapy, he moved to Colorado in 2007 and started working and racing duathlons.
But last year, Russell said he decided he wanted to learn to swim. He moved back home to New York and taught himself. In July, he visited Austin for the Couples Tri. Apparently, “Quadzilla” didn’t ruin his impression of the place. “I was thinking if I’m going to pursue this, I need to go somewhere to work on my swimming,” he said. “So I ended up moving to Austin.”
Shortly after moving to Austin, Russell met T3 Head Coach Maurice Culley through fellow tri pro Natasha Van Der Merwe. Russell started swimming with Culley just about the time some coaching positions were opening up. “I was looking for job,” Russell said. “He offered me a position, and I started working in January.”
Now, he’s coaching spin and run workouts and leading long weekend bike rides and runs with T3 while he works on that swimming technique. And he said his swim is improving. His time in the 1.2-mile swim, he said, has fallen from about 36 minutes at the Longhorn 70.3 in October to about 29 minutes now. “I shaved off some time, but I still have some more time to shave off,” he said.
For the season ahead, Russell said his plans include five half-ironman races, including the Lonestar 70.3 in Galveston this Sunday, and three full ironman races.
“My goal this year is to consistently place in the top 10 or top five in races,” Russell said. “Hopefully I can get on the podium next year a little bit.”
Though he hasn’t yet been through Austin’s sweaty summer, Russell said he’s enjoying training here so far. A lover of the outdoors, who spent a summer living in a tent – technically called a “yurt” – in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Russell said his favorite training venue in Austin is the Greenbelt. He runs there about three times a week. “It kind of feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It probably keeps my sanity.”
Russell said he enjoys most the diversity of training that triathlon offers and the balance it requires for success. He may not be the most talented at each of the sports, but he said what sets him apart is his determination to work for improvement.
“I pretty much try to live every day as my last,” he said. “I learned a lot of life lessons from my mother and I don’t take one day for granted.”
(C) 2011 Brandi Grissom