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Penn alum Sam Mattis will become the first Penn track and field athlete to compete at the Olympic Games in over a decade. Credit: Thomas Munson

After a junior year in which he was the NCAA National Champion in the discus and a senior year in which he finished as runner-up in the NCAA’s, Sam Mattis had his sights set on the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Penn’s throwing coach at the time, Tony Tenisci, was confident that he would qualify for the Games just based on the level that he was throwing at, but during the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Mattis was faced with some terrible fortune.

The competitors that went before him had dry conditions to throw the discus in. Then, for the next hour, it rained torrentially. Nobody stopped the event and Mattis was forced to throw in circumstances that Tenisci called “a nightmare”.

“[You] can’t hold onto [a] discus that’s wet and [you] can’t move through a circle filled with water,” Tenisci said. “If we would have had all dry conditions, he would have gone to Rio, no questions [asked], but as his name was called, and I stood there in the stands, [I] just looked up and I went, ‘Dear God, is this really happening?’ It was the worst possible thing, and it happened as he went in, so it was really just a heartbreaker.”

Now, after five years of waiting, Mattis was met with the dry conditions he’d been waiting for and was able to qualify for the Olympic Games this past weekend in Eugene, Oregon.

Mattis will become the first Penn track and field athlete to compete at the Games since Michael Aguilar ran in the 400 meter hurdles for Belize in the 2004 Olympics. Additionally, Mattis will become the first Penn track and field athlete since 1976 decathlon competitor Fred Samara to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.

He qualified by virtue of his third-place finish in the men’s discus at trials, which came after his throw of 62.51 meters in the first round of the semifinal. Mattis, who needed to finish at third or above to qualify for the Games, will be joined by first- and second-place finishers Reggie Jagers and Mason Finley, who will also be competing for the U.S.

For Mattis, the victory serves as vindication of a hard-fought discus career. His throwing coach at Penn, Tony Tenisci, lauded both his astounding abilities and his impressive work ethic that he exhibited while he was a Quaker.

“I’ve never had an athlete quite like him,” Tenisci said. “He was very extraordinary from the beginning and his work ethic, his desire to be good, [and] his physical abilities were just off the charts.”

Coming into Penn, Mattis had been the high school national champion in the discus, so little of this came as a surprise to Tenisci, but some aspects startled him a decent amount.

Specifically, in regards to his work ethic, Tenisci identified an athlete who almost had too much of a drive to succeed.

“In fact, it was very hyper in the beginning,” he said. “All he knew was to do more. If I told him, ‘That’s enough,' he had trouble with that because he could never end a practice on a bad throw. So he might have done 100 good throws, but the last throw would be not good, and he’d want to do another 100.

“I don’t think there was another discus star in the country that worked as hard as him, certainly at the volume that he put in.”

Mattis’s drive and determination put him in prime position to compete with the most elite discus throwers in the country, but in his freshman year, he was still beginning to find his footing. At the NCAA East Preliminary Round that year, Mattis finished in 13th place in the discus.

After he was left “distraught,” according to Tenisci, Mattis spent the whole summer dedicated to his strength and to his craft. This improvement led to a sophomore season in which he placed fifth and the NCAA Outdoor Championships and then in his junior year, he finished as the NCAA National Champion in the discus.

Following his senior season in 2016, Mattis was left with the choice of whether to dedicate himself fully to his discus career or to pursue investment banking, after having received an offer to work full-time at JPMorgan Chase.

He chose the former, which set him up to spend the succeeding years working several odd jobs including marketing for a pharmacist, working for a startup company that tried to be an “Uber for laundry,” and doing some sports betting and blackjack.

In 2019, the alternative career path he had taken appeared to be vindicated, as Mattis became the only American to advance to the final at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. That same year, Mattis finished in first place at the USATF Championships in Des Moines, Iowa with a throw of 66.69m.

According to Tenisci, if Mattis can replicate that distance, he’ll have a real shot at medalling in Tokyo this summer.

“It’s been a long five years, and I know when he’s finally there that he’s gonna do a great job,” Tenisci said. “I remember taking him to the events at NCAA. He’d come out of his room, he did his warm-up, he went out to the field, and he was ready to go. That’s a gift, but if you worked as hard as him, there would be no reason to be nervous because the work holds you up. All you have to do is what you do in practice. 

“He’ll be excited, but I don’t think he’ll let the nerves get him. I think he’ll be quite happy to have his opportunity to represent his work at the Olympics.”

Mattis will spend the next several weeks doing training more focused on quality throwing than on volume, as he works to get his timing fully down before he heads to Tokyo.

The Olympic Games will run from July 21-August 8, with track and field events being held from July 30-August 8. The qualifying round for men’s discus will take place on the morning of July 30 and the final will be the next day.