Years of 6:00 a.m. practices, hundreds of hours spent traveling to meets, and millions of yards in the pool have brought him to this point in his career: Being a frontrunner for the 2024 United States Olympic Team. After medaling at the 2023 World Championships this past July, Penn men’s swimming and diving junior breaststroker Matthew Fallon is ready to reach a goal that many only dream of.
Fallon began his competitive swimming career across the Delaware in Warren, N.J., at five years old on what is currently the Greater Somerset County YMCA club swim team. He was no stranger to the sport, though, as his parents and older siblings swam and served as an influence when he was just starting out.
He first made headlines after picking up two YMCA national records in the 200-meter breast and 400m individual medley events at 15 years old. In the latter, Fallon first gained attention for his “back-half” technique — meaning the second half of the race was faster than the first. The year after, Fallon made his first international team in the 200m breaststroke, representing the U.S. at the 2019 World Junior Championships.
“From my club swimming years, I've tried to carry with me a genuine love for the sport, no matter what level I get to," Fallon said. "There's nothing like swimming on a club team with that feeling of wonder about the sport and seeing what's next. As you compete at higher and higher levels, it's more difficult to keep that sense of wonder about how everything is new and still fun.”
While swimming for his club team, Fallon also competed for his middle and high school, The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, N.J. It was no surprise that he excelled in both environments by remaining undefeated in the regular season, earning three state championships in the 100-yard breaststroke, and holding his high school's independent national record in the 100m breast and 400m freestyle.
“Matt is always trying to take it to the next level, but he always takes the rest of the team with him," Fallon's high school coach, Deirdre O' Mara, said. "Even if it’s an intense workout and everyone else is kicking and screaming through it, he’s always been that leader who encourages and pushes everyone to be their best and get to the next level. Being able to chase Matt was the biggest gift for those guys.”
As captain during his fragmented 2020-21 high school season, Fallon led his team to an undefeated dual-meet season, including a victory over the program's biggest rival — the only loss suffered the season prior.
2021 continued to be a year of breakthroughs and triumphs. Days after his high school graduation, Fallon burst back into the spotlight at the 2020 Olympic Trials. In the 200m breastroke, he raced to first place in the preliminary and semifinal rounds, ahead of veterans and 2016 Olympians. However, Fallon's performance dipped in the finals, where he finished in eighth, falling short of a spot on the team. He did walk away with a national age group record in the 200m breast and a top-20 time in the world in 2021.
“I'm grateful to have that experience under my belt," Fallon said. "Although I don’t know the outcome, it's comforting to have a general sense of what the [upcoming] Olympic Trials will be like. Putting up a good swim in the semifinals was great because I know I’m able to put up a good swim under high-stakes pressure. That was just like a good learning experience.”
With his Olympics Trials debut in the books, Fallon turned his attention to his collegiate career at Penn. Fallon ranked as high as the No. 8 overall swimming recruit in the nation during recruitment. At Penn, he isn’t taking the easy road — studying an uncoordinated dual degree in SEAS and Wharton with a math minor.
“I'm not surprised to hear about [Fallon’s equal academic and athletic priorities]. His brother Billy was the same way," O'Mara said. "I truly believe Matt would have gone anywhere and worked hard and been a successful overachiever student, but I do believe that Penn's programs and coach [Mike] Schnur are perfect for Matt, his skill set, and his headspace.”
Fallon's 2021 momentum rolled into his collegiate career, and it certainly did not hurt that a familiar face awaited him in Philadelphia — his older brother, Billy. As one Fallon began his Penn swimming career, another was a senior finishing up his.
And Fallon stunned during his freshman season. He became an Ivy League champion in the 200y breast, etched his name in program record books in several events, and finished third at the NCAA championships.
Like his career at Pingry — in an environment where his individual goals can easily rise above team goals — Fallon thrived with his new team rallying behind him.
“Of course, Matt has different goals and is always focusing on the national and international level — that's much bigger than just dual meets." Schnur said. "Day to day, he's a joy to coach. He works hard. Everybody on the team loves him. He's a great teammate. He keeps it fun. We laugh every day with him.”
As described, Fallon is always striving to be better. In the 2022 postseason, that meant switching it up and training with the Athens Bulldog Swim Club in Georgia to prepare for the 2022 Philips 66 National Championships. In the race, Fallon used his signature back-half technique, turning a seventh-place finish in the 100m to a second-place one in the 150m to take home the win.
Come the 2022-23 collegiate season, expectations were high, and the then-sophomore delivered for the Quakers. For the first half of the regular dual meet season, Fallon was undefeated in breaststroke events and shined at the mid-season Zippy Invitational.
However, Fallon suffered an in-practice injury before Ivy League Championships, leading to a less-than-ideal performance, and an absence at the 2023 NCAA Championships.
“Matt took [his injury] seriously and didn’t swim for about six weeks," Schnur said. "He went home for spring break, and when he came back, we started from scratch and slowly built back up. By the time we got to early/mid-April, he was back in shape and started base training in him.”
That summer, eerily similar to the one before, Fallon returned to Georgia with Athens Bulldogs Swim Club to prepare for the 2023 Philips 66 National Championships — where this time, the top two finishers at the meet qualified for the U.S 2023 World Championships team.
Fallon stayed in control through prelims and finals to take home back-to-back national titles and qualify for the Worlds team. Trusting his training and back-half technique, he swam to a 2:07.71 finish — two seconds faster than the year before to clock in as fifth-fastest in the world in 2023.
Unlike some other events that had a clear international favorite, luckily for Fallon, the 200m breast was a wild-card event. World record holder and defending champion Australian Zac Stubblety-Cook was not competing at his best, and fastest 200m breaststroker of the year Léon Marchand opted out of the event. Despite Fallon’s lack of senior international experience and injury a few months prior working against him, he at least had many familiar faces from his childhood swimming days with him in Japan.
Fallon, even with his rookie status, delivered for Team USA. In signature Fallon fashion, he came from eighth at the first 100m to finish third at 2:07:74, just off his time from the month before. He became the first-ever Penn swimmer to medal at the World Championships.
“[The biggest difference on the international stage] is how the entire meet is carried out in general," Fallon said. "With international competition, you're representing your country. There's a lot more emphasis put on everything. On the national stage, you represent your club team and mainly yourself, whereas, on the international stage, you're feeling representative of something bigger than yourself.”
With that impressive debut, Fallon is a favorite to represent Team USA for the 200m breast at the 2024 Paris Olympics, and his experience, drive, and personality increase the odds of an Olympic berth next summer.
“Matt's confident, and he also has a great attitude about swimming," Schnur said. "Nothing bothers him. He's just a big fun kid who has an impressive good time and practice. He never gets too high, never gets too low, and nothing really bothers him. That's very unique for someone who's at that international level. He doesn't drive himself crazy about the little things.”
“He is relentless, and he does not give up doesn't no matter what. It translates into so many areas of his life from academics, practices, and meets. He is always forward-looking. He wasn’t one to dwell and was always looking to move forward learning from his mistakes,” O’Mara added.
This spring Fallon is planning to take a lighter course load and keep his back-half racing strategies unchanged. But unexpectedly, his current mindset in preparing for the Olympic Trials in June is treating the season like any other.
“I don't want to say it's like any other season because Trials is important, but I'm not throwing everything else away to just become a pro swimmer," Fallon said. "This year, I still want to have a good overall school year while putting a little extra focus on swimming. I treat it as ‘don't make a big deal out of it, but definitely, put yourself in a position to swim fast.’ "
As the end of the year approaches, Fallon is looking to end 2023 on a high note at this week’s Toyota U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C, which is serving as his mid-season meet while the rest of the Red and Blue head North to Princeton for the Big Al Invite. He’s seeded first in the 200m breast and ninth in the 100m.
“I've been training long-course five times a week," Fallon said. "It's going well and helping me get revved up for the U.S. Open. It has been a little bit of a rocky training block, but I think I've been putting in a lot of good work. Most of the time, good long coursework has been reserved for the summers. This is the first fall where I've definitely improved as a long-course swimmer. I'm happy about that and excited to see what I can do at the U.S. Open.”