It’s Spring 2010 and a young boy shows up at Whitehall track and field tryouts.
In a word, he’s awkward. Like a young giraffe, he hasn’t quite figured out how to control his elongated arms and legs. He’s not a total klutz, but then-track and field coach Kristoff Ausderau certainly isn’t projecting big things for this boy.
Ausderau and his wife Niki decide to have him run hurdles. It seems almost like a cruel joke for someone still trying to figure out his body. But the Ausderaus aren’t sadists. Rather, they love hurdles because it’s the event they ran in high school, so they encourage young athletes to give it a try.
It isn’t always pretty. Ausderau remembers holding his breath as he watched this boy run the hurdles. It’s nerve-wracking as he trips and falls, occasionally crashing into a hurdle or falling at the start of a race, but he’s relentless. He just won’t quit.
In the coming years, the boy will grow into his body. He’ll learn to use his long legs to fly over hurdles. He’ll add events to his repertoire, becoming a high jumper, long jumper and a sprinter. In 2013, he’ll win a WIAA state championship and eventually he’ll star on the Division I NCAA track and field stage, making the national championships in the Spring of 2019. But for now, this freshman, named Brian Matthews, is just focusing on the immediate obstacles, the 39-inch hurdles standing between him and the finish line.
Matthews’ underclass years with the Norse weren’t spectacular by any means.
His freshman season came to a crashing end at sectionals, when he tripped over a hurdle and finished over a second slower than the second-to-last finisher. It was a disappointing and embarrassing end, but Matthews wasn’t discouraged.
He returned for his sophomore year determined to be the best hurdler at Whitehall.
“One day we were warming up in practice and Brian looked at this other hurdler... and said ‘I’m going to beat you this year,’” Ausderau remembered.
It was a shocking declaration, even comical coming from a boy who had just finished last at sectionals the year before.
“We all had a good laugh about it,” Ausderau said. “I think Brian played it off as if he was joking a little bit, but he was serious in his mind.”
When the indoor season started, Matthews was still well behind his competition. He had improved his time, but not enough to be Whitehall’s top hurdler.
Then, on April 28, it flipped. In the 110-meter final, Matthews took fourth place, finishing a quarter-second faster than his Norse foe.
By the end of the year, Matthews qualified for state, making his first trip to La Crosse, where he ran the 110-meter hurdles, finishing 14th out of 16 racers.
The bar had been raised. Heading into junior season, Matthews had a new goal: Run track in college.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Matthews gravitated toward Brigham Young University, owned and operated by the LDS Church. There was just one problem. BYU has a Division I NCAA athletics program and Matthews was anything but a Division 1 athlete.
Not good enough
In 2012, Matthews went to a track camp at UW-Madison. He wanted to see how he stacked up against other top runners and attract some interest from collegiate coaches.
“I talked to the (Wisconsin) coach about my times and my interest of running at DI,” Matthews said. “I remember him saying that if I was interested in running track, I should look into DIII schools.”
That was the challenge Matthews needed. It made him mad. It gave him something to prove.
In his senior year, Matthews put up huge numbers. He reached the podium in nine different events throughout the season.
“Sometimes kids from small schools are OK with being the best in the school or the conference,” Ausderau said. “And Brian was the hurdler at the school. He could have easily just rested knowing that he’d win every race in the area, but he never rested on those things.”
He never forgot that voice from the Wisconsin coach telling him he wasn’t good enough. It drove him to keep improving, to keep shaving off those seconds to become the best hurdler in the state.
At La Crosse, he had a chance to prove he was the best. He qualified for the state finals in the 110-meter hurdles, the 300-meter hurdles, and the high jump.
“He took first place in every hurdle event his senior year,” Matthews’ mother, Deanna, said. “So, we went into state thinking he would take first.”
Things did not go as planned. In the 110-meter hurdles, Matthews finished second, falling almost a half second behind Darin Ward of St. Mary’s Springs Academy.
It was disappointing, but he still had the 300-meter ahead of him.
Just before his marquee event, the sky opened up and rain came pouring down. It created was an unaccounted-for obstacle and totally changed the dynamics of the race.
When the gun fired, Matthews came out fast. He was flying, but so too was Tyler Schwartzman of Tri-County who kept Matthews at bay.
“This kid was out in front of him the whole race,” Ausderau remembered. “But Brian just kept working and working and working and on the last hurdle, this kid went a little bit high and Brian just sailed right by the guy and you could just hear the guy yell ‘No!’ as Brian passed him.
“I think there were a lot of people who didn’t know if Brian would win that race, but Brian knew he’d win it.”
Ausderau said that race defined Matthews. It showed his determination and his never-give-up attitude.
When he graduated Whitehall at the end of 2013, he left his mark on the school. He holds a school records in the 55-meter, 110-meter, and 300-meter hurdles. But now, there was a tougher test.
Off to BYU
When Matthews enrolled at as a student at BYU in 2011, he still hadn’t completely shed himself of that gumby-like awkwardness that defined much of his high school career. Even with his state championship to his name, he still didn’t have times that impressed D1 track coaches.
“You have kids that you think are a sure thing and you have kids who are a little questionable,” BYU associate track and field coach Mark Robison said. “And with Brian’s situation you just didn’t know.”
The Wisconsin coach was right. Matthews wasn’t cut out to be a D1 hurdler. His times weren’t good enough and BYU already had numerous much faster hurdlers.
“I met with the (BYU) coach and I told him I had interest in joining the team,” Matthews said. “But basically, he told me I wouldn’t be able to make the team if I was just a hurdler.”
There was, however, another option for Matthews. Coming from a small school, Matthews had competed in numerous events. He starred in hurdles, but he had at least dabbled in almost every event.
It made him a perfect candidate for an event he’d never tried before, the decathlon.
“I didn’t really know what it was,” Matthews said. “I researched it and it was ten different events, so I knew I needed to pick up on those quick.”
Matthews had no other option. He thought he might be able to shave a fraction of a second off his hurdle time, but BYU wasn’t going to give him the chance. If he wanted to make the team, he’d have to be a decathlete.
“It was an interesting process,” Matthews remembered. “I had to learn shot put, discuss, pole vault, javelin, and some of the other running events that I didn’t do during my school year.”
Over time, his work paid off. When final cuts came around, Matthews made the team as a walk on.
That first season went well. Matthews proved he deserved to be back for another year. BYU even offered him a small scholarship to stay with the team. But all that would have to wait a couple years. First, Matthews had to go to Chile.
Changes in Chile
“That was a hard decision for me,” Matthews said. “It was a decision that wasn’t mandatory. It was an opportunity to share a little bit about Jesus Christ and what he’s done for us.”
Matthews spent two years in Santiago West, Chile. There he worked as a missionary, bringing his faith to anyone who was willing to listen.
“That mission changed his life,” Deanna said. “It made him more responsible, it brought him closer to God. The person he became, I would never change that.”
But there was a drawback. Two years spent in a foreign country living on different food isn’t always the best thing for athletes.
“Most of the athletes either come back really thin or because they’ve been on beans and rice for two years, they have 20 to 30 extra pounds” Robison said. “He was lean, but he had lost most of his muscle.”
It took him a while to get back into shape, but by the start of 2016-17 track and field season, Matthews was ready to back with his team.
His return was short-lived. Just a few meets into the season, he landed awkwardly on a pole vault landing and dislocated his elbow, ending his season.
Picking back up
After a summer of rehabbing, Matthews returned for the 2017-18 season ready for big things. His athletic scholarship had grown and now BYU was invested in his success.
“He came out a year and a half ago, and oh my gosh, he just set the world on fire,” Robison said. “He (set personal records) like crazy at indoors. I thought we were going to make nationals.”
He took the top spot in at the BYU December Invite in the heptathlon and looked poised for a breakout season.
“I hit some huge marks, and everything was looking super good,” Matthews said. “And then, the next meet was at Air Force and I was having some issues with my groin, it just felt tight.”
He wasn’t overly concerned. But in the long jump, he felt a pop.
“He had his hopes dashed,” Deanna said.
It took months to figure out what was wrong with him. His doctors thought the pain would just go away with rest and rehab, but it persisted. Finally, Matthews had had enough. The pain wasn’t going away, and he returned to the doctor hoping for a more definitive answer.
“It was a very frustrating time waiting for him to get the care that he needed,” Matthews’ wife, Rachel said. “Eventually they decided the only thing left to do was surgery.”
Matthews was diagnosed with a sports hernia. The surgery he needed has a very low success rate, according to Rachel. There was no guarantee that it would work, but it was the only option left.
On July 25, 2018, Matthews went under the knife.
Returning to form
On January 12, Matthews returned to the team for his second track season. The rehab was long and arduous. It forced him to miss the season’s opening meet. But now, he was ready to pick up where he left off. He had his eyes set on yet another lofty goal: Make nationals.
He cruised through the season, setting new personal bests and placing amongst the nations’ best decathletes.
When his season came to a close on May 10, he sat 20th in the nation, four spots safe of the cut-off mark.
Robinson was confident. He knew the Big 10 and the SEC still had their final meets to go, but would four people really jump Matthews? Robison didn’t think so.
He was wrong.
When the final results were announced, Matthews was 26th, just missing the cut off mark.
Reaching nationals was going to have to wait a year.
Or so he thought.
On May 21, Robinson received a call from BYU head track and field coach Ed Eyestone. There had been two medical scratches and Matthews was bumped into the top 24.
“I thought he was just teasing me,” Robinson said. “It was a complete shock.”
Fortunately for Matthews, he was prepared. Instead of taking the weeks off after the season to relax, he kept training.
At nationals, it showed. Matthews finished 11th.
You could say Matthews got lucky. That long gangly boy eventually grew into his limbs. Sure, he was injured, but never bad enough to end his career. And rarely, if ever, do two people drop out of the national championships due to medical scratches. But Matthews never gave up. He kept working and working. When he was told he wasn’t good enough, he worked harder.
There’s a saying in the Matthews family, coined by Matthews’ father, Jeffery. It’s been Matthews motto, adopted from his father.
“Luck,” they say, “favors the prepared.”