The story of Matt Russell is one of the most inspiring stories in triathlon. In triathlon, as in life, tough times are inevitable. It’s how we deal with those situations that will determine our results, our reputation, and how we think about ourselves.
On October 14, 2017, Matt was competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona. After 76 miles on the bike, he collided with a van going over 28 miles per hour. Those at the scene that day thought that he was dead. A year later he placed 6th in Kona!
The crash left Matt with a severed sternocleidomastoid (a muscle in the neck) and a severed jugular vein on his right side, as well as a concussion. To understand how someone can go through that and get back to the highest level in the sport just a year later, we have to look at what Matt calls "the comeback year".
"2018 was a rollercoaster year. My first Ironman back was Ironman Texas. I was in pretty good shape and I got to about 16 miles of running and my neck muscle on the opposite side of where the accident had happened was working overtime. It felt like a knife was jabbing me in the upper back/shoulder area. For the first time in my life, I had to walk some of the marathon".
"It really bothered me in training. If you have a weakness or an imbalance in your body, an Ironman will definitely show that on race day. I was highly motivated to come back, but many days were very emotional. I was asking myself all these questions: Can I get back to my top level? Is this the right thing I am doing or why am I doing this? An emotional rollercoaster", Matt says.
"With each race, my neck muscles were getting better and I was feeling faster too. My next race that year was Ironman Canada where I finished 3rd. That was a really big race for me. Some weeks later I raced Ironman Mont Tremblant where I also finished 3rd. Did I still have pain in my neck? Yes! But I pushed through it. My whole message was: Put in the hard work, keep believing and big things will happen. I wasn’t planning on being an inspiration to people, but many have since then reached out to me and it has been great to hear that I am inspiring others."
Racing the same race that almost cost his life
After fighting for 12 months to get back to his usual self, it was time to race in Kona again.
"Going into Kona 2018, my goal was to just finish the race. No matter what place I end up with, I was going to be super happy. Crossing the finish line meant that I was alive, that I conquered something. Going from almost losing my life exactly a year earlier, I was just dreaming of crossing that finish line", Matt says.
"I had a great swim, a solid bike, and a very steady run. I ended up running up to 6th place. When I was crossing the line you can see all the overwhelming emotions in my face. I have never felt more alive in my life than at that exact moment. I was thankful, grateful, and appreciative just to be alive. I want to set an example that, if you believe in yourself, you can do anything".
A lot of people in the sport have either had a crash or know a person that has had a crash (maybe even a serious one). Matt shares some advice to those people on how to push through it.
"The most important thing is safety. Try to do smart things in training. I do the majority of my training inside on my trainer. If you go outside you want to take all the precautions, but even then, there can come a car from behind and you don’t stand a chance. That is a possibility and that is scary. But every time you get in a vehicle and start driving you also put yourself at risk. Tons of people lose their lives every year from car accidents. If you get in a car accident, are you ever going to drive again? I think most people will drive again. It is one of those things, you just got to take one step at a time. Having a strong support system helps a great deal. My family is my support system."
"Coming back from an accident like that you are going to have fears, and that is what your support system is for. But you will also have some limitations. Mine showed up in an Ironman race. I will never be the same athlete as I was before the accident, I have muscle imbalances, I am not the same person. But that doesn’t mean that I can't be better than I used to".
"Tough times will make you stronger. A lot of it is how you react to the situation you are in. You can have a situation bring you down, or elevate you. It begins with your mind and your perspective. You will not have control over everything. But you have control over what you can do in a day. So take one day at a time", Matt says.
Matt might have an advantage when it comes to dealing with the uncertainty of being an athlete in 2020.
At the beginning of this year, Matt was in phenomenal shape. He had moved to South Africa with his family to start his season racing Ironman South Africa and train there while his new house was being built back in Florida.
"It was less than two weeks before the race that the pandemic hit, so instead of preparing for the race, we were preparing to get back to the U.S. When we were on the flight, they said that it was the last flight to leave from South Africa to the U.S. for the foreseeable future. So we felt pretty lucky being on that flight.
"Back home, we didn’t have a place to go because our house was being built close to our old home in Florida. We ended up going to my dad’s place in the northern New York area, which proved to be the perfect place to be when the pandemic hit. The nearest neighbor was like a mile away".
"As far as training and motivation, I was really into cycling back in April, May, and June. I was doing swift races, Ironman VR race. My cycling got really good. When we were able to get back to Florida I was able to start swimming again after a 2 months break. From the end of June, I started not cycling quite as much and I started to pick up my running and swimming more. Normally I am doing 30 to 35 hours a week of training, but now I am doing half of that. I am spending more time with family, which is great. Currently, I am starting to ramp up my training a bit more because there are some races on the horizon, which helps with my motivation."
For people worrying about COVID-19 and the cancellation of races, Matt's experience from 2018 allows him to deal with uncertainty in a healthy way.
"You can spend all your time worrying about stuff, but that is not going to get you anywhere. When there is a hurdle in front of you, you either walk around it, jump over it or you can take a couple of steps back, but eventually, you will have to get past it."
"These times are tough, there is so much uncertainty. If you can focus on having the right perspective, having a positive frame of mind, and just taking it one day at a time, you will become a better person and athlete", Matt says.
Why custom goggles were the right choice for Matt Russell.
Matt's experience trying to find good goggles shows a lot of what people go through when they first get into triathlon from a non-swimming background.
"My experience of trying to find goggles was to try A LOT of goggles. Everyone’s face and shape is a little bit different. The two most important things for me are that they are comfortable and that they don’t leak. It’s the same with most other things in the sport. For running you want to have comfortable shoes. For your bike, you want to have a comfortable saddle and position. You don’t want anything that is going to slow you down or waste time. It is the same with goggles. If they are not perfect for you, you are going to stop a lot of times to adjust".
Matt is doing the roll for a particular reason.
Matt has completed 45 Ironman races, which is unheard of most pros, and every time he finishes, he gets down on the finish line and proceeds to roll across it. Jon Blaise founded the "Blazeman Roll". Blais competed at the Ironman World Championship after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As he came to the line, Blais lay down and rolled himself across the finish line.
Matt has a very specific reason for doing the roll: "For every full Ironman that I do, I will do the roll. Jon was the one that founded it, but I do it in memory of my mother who I lost to ALS when I was 15 years old. I do it to create awareness as well as a memory."
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Why do I do a Blazeman roll at the finish line of every @ironmantri that I do? I do it in memory of my mother and to raise awareness for @als #Repost @activimages ・・・ Championship Ironman Kona 2016 #ironman #usa #triathlon #triathletes #ironmantraining #photography #photographer #sport #running #action #canon 📸 @jackyeveraerdt @activimages
"I think that the endurance world is something you can get wrapped into and it can be a selfish sport. It feels great when you can give back and do something else than Swim, Bike, and Run. I am also an Ironman foundation ambassador. They are always looking to help the community, so if you are trying to do something along those lines you can always reach out to the foundation."
Matt is no doubt an inspiration to many people in the sport and we at TheMagic5 are very proud to welcome him to the tribe.
Fascinating, inspiring story. Thanks.
Matt is amazing. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know him a bit swimming in the pool with him. He is a phenomenal athlete but even more important is he is a wonderful person.
Matt Russel is a great example of humbleness, persistence and overcome.
And an amazing person and athlete.