Joining the top ranks of the men’s 800-meter run at Penn is no easy feat to accomplish.
“The eight at Penn has always been one of the premier events,” middle distance head coach Robin Martin said. “I’d say by far it’s the hardest top ten to crack. The top of the list has a national champion on it, and everyone in the top 3 or 4 were top-5 at the NCAA level.”
However, two weeks ago at the George Mason Invitational, that’s exactly what sophomore Mato Bekelja did.
“It feels pretty good, but when it happened I realized that it’s just a good stepping stone for future achievements,” Bekelja said.
A time of 1:49.62 placed Bekelja at 10th all-time at Penn, knocking George Katerman out of the top 10 for the first time since he broke the school record in 1959 with a hand time of 1:49.76.
“It’s great to see his success because he’s the most dedicated and motivated person on our team,” Martin said.
Bekelja, a sophomore hailing from Hummelstown, Pa. has a long history of athletic feats. He was the captain of both the wrestling and outdoor track teams in high school, was an All-American in 2011 and holds multiple high-school records in both the 4×400 and 4×800 relay competitions.
His list of achievements only fuels his desire to do even better.
“Confidence deriving from doing well in workouts to knowing that you’re following the steps that you need to make yourself succeed — from getting eight hours of sleep a night to not eating the wrong things — gives you the mental edge to go out and perform,” Bekelja said.
But context makes Bekelja’s accomplishment that much more impressive. As Martin explained, Penn rarely lacks talent in the middle distance races, especially the 800. The top 10 is stubbornly inflexible, yet since Martin joined the coaching staff five years ago, three players have broken into the ranks.
Martin has also coached Darryll Oliver, who ran a 1:48.41 in 2010 to place him in fourth all-time, and Brian Fulton, who ran a 1:49.49 in 2012, on his way into the history books.
But what secret of Martin’s is leading to these broken records?
“Every once in awhile, I’ll have a pearl to pass on from my racing days,” Martin said. “But in reality, having been through the preparation, I kind of know some of the things they’ve gone through, and it helps me to formulate some better workouts and get an idea of what they need and what they’re looking for.”
In addition to personal experience — Martin himself is third all-time in the 800 with a time of 1:47.10 — he points to more than the physical aspects of competing.
“Some of the things that have made Mato special this year are things he picked up off the track,” Martin said. “Track and field is one of those sports where it’s not like a gym where you work out and then you leave. In track, you carry that sport with you everywhere you go — it’s encased in your skin.
“So everything you do 24 hours a day is either making you better or making you worse. When I made that transition as an athlete I was far better. Being able to pass that on, especially in Mato’s case, is making a big difference.”
With two years remaining at Penn, Bekelja has plenty of time to propel himself further up the record books. For now, however, this achievement is one to be proud of.
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