The Malta Independent 14 November 2018, Wednesday

The President, the Athlete and the Gentleman! (4): An interview with elite athlete Matthew Croker

Friday, 17 August 2018, 09:55 Last update: about 4 months ago

Ray A Scicluna

Matthew Croker, a 29-year-old elite athlete, Savio Athletic President, Staff Engineer in an IT company by profession, engaged to Martika Camilleri and soon to be married.

 

Matthew, we have known each other for quite some time and there is a mutual respect which bonds us. You are very discreet, rarely aiming for the limelight, strive to help others, seek perfection in your training, highly committed to training, enjoy the company of your training group, motivating them and are an inspiration to many. Your amicable way with others is contagious and are highly respected by many. Personally speaking; the prototype of an athlete but am sure there is more to this than meets the eye. Can you describe a typical week in your life during the loading period? You must juggle work, training, relationship and your future home. Your lifestyle, diet and rest which am sure are determining factors, how do you manage?

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Thanks for the kind comments Ray. During loading period we usually train 9-10 times a week, averaging 20 hours every week. When doing double sessions we usually meet at around 5.30 in the morning, do the session, head to work, then straight to training again soon after. As you can imagine, winter days can be really long days but thankfully I am well equipped to make them bearable. First, thanks to my friend and coach Mario Bonello and my peers, training has become my social life. Additionally, my employer Ixaris Systems Ltd has always encouraged me and collaborated with Sport Malta so that I can be successful both in my career as well with my training. Finally, I am blessed with an amazing support network of family, girlfriend and colleagues. My family, for example, has adapted its food preparations to complement my dietary needs, and Martika has embraced my athlete life unconditionally. They may not understand the nitty gritties of the sport, most probably not even why I do it, but, when they see me so committed and working hard every day, they do it out of love. Without that kind of support, my life would be impossible.

 

Matthew, I recall you running the 400m and most of the times you were the winner, then you embarked on the 800m too. The beginning was tough since there were stiff competitors, much more experienced with this distance, but you pursued this event and today you are the protagonist of the 800m. Way to Go!! Behind such success, there certainly exists sweat, training, perseverance, highs and lows and much more. There was a year recently where you were close to breaking an old National Record pertaining to Xandru Grech. What are your views about this 800m, the continuous chase of MQS s, the chasing of the NR, your performances locally and abroad and what are you aiming for in the future?

As I said many times, switching to the 800m was a vote of obedience, so to speak, after my coach suggested the idea. I believe that training is teamwork between athlete and coach, and I also believe that whenever my coach suggests something it would be the fruit of a lengthy thought process. Today I have no regrets, but I remember when I was transitioning it was quite a shock. My training got significantly longer and even more varied, but I now feel more accomplished.

I am humbled and proud that Malta had not seen performances at the standard I am running for at least a decade. Is it enough? Is it the level we should be aiming for? Probably not, but I can say that at the upcoming generation of young athletes have, at least, witnessed performances which can hopefully inspire them for them to do better eventually.

Chasing the MQSs and NR are of course my day-to-day milestones, yet it is good to keep some perspective in their regards. The NR, for example, has been a milestone since I switched disciplines. The closer I got and the more I have matured in the distance, the more I understand what it means to work towards your goals. If the goal becomes the ultimate aim of your existence, as many goals tend to become, you would be in for a lot of disappointments. I have studied the performance phenomenon in my Masters' degree, and if I were to condense 2 years of studying in a single sentence I would say, using my tutor's words, "to perform is to give oneself, completely".

My ultimate priority is to perform, and therefore training and races should be a build-up towards my performances. The audience can be my family, my coach, the whole world or perhaps no one at all. If a milestone gets within reach, then let's analyse what we can do to achieve it. What we need to keep in mind is that every race and every season has its own story, and these all feed into one's performances. I speak both to my coach Mario, to Xandru and also to Ivan Rosznov (Xandru's coach at his peak) very often about, and the conversation never stops at the mere point of breaking a record but always evolves into what I need to do to improve, and what I can do to perform better.

 

Matthew, I didn't know you when you were young, but my acquaintances spoke highly of you in terms of athletic performances. Please elaborate further. Was there any sabbatical year because of studies or other tasks where you couldn't cope with studies and training simultaneously? In this long career in athletics, what was the most difficult time where you were literally up to the collar and yet you kept training without missing a session?

I started training athletics when I was 9 years old and had joined a session with Fr. Clifton by pure chance while my older brother was training for the shot put. I was a quite boy, true, but always curious and a yes man, and once Fr. Clifton had invited me to join the other boys I just went for it. The first breakthrough was when I broke the 300m National Record for the Cadet category (in those days it was U11) with 43.7s. That had captured Fr. Clifton's eye and from then onwards my training became more structured. There were years when I was already doing double sessions, that is, before and after school. At the age of 15, 2004, I had broke the 400m National Record for the Youth category with a time of 52.59, and was also honoured with the Youth Athlete of the Year.

In my late teens I had disconnected a little bit with the sport. I couldn't find a good way how to balance training, study, voluntary work, social life and the many other commitments I was involved in. Having said that, I did win a medal in COJI 2006 with a time of 51.8s in 400m with the help of Ralph Mifsud as a coach. Eventually I continued to slack a lot on training and, while I was still running decent (by Maltese standards) times in 400m (say 53s and 52s), it was not good. Not being fit enough I had become extremely prone to injury and there was a time when I had almost given up due to back problems.

Yet, I gave myself another chance. Ralph, with his patience and empathising character, was instrumental in me sticking to the sport despite all odds and starting again, and later on I had joined Mario Bonello who is my coach until this very day.

My period off from training was not really a sabbatical due to any particular reason. It was lack of maturity, typical of a youth at that age. This, I believe, is one of the biggest problems of athlete retention in Malta for athletes in these crucial years of life. People passing through that period of life require mentors, who are not necessarily or exclusively their coaches, but a supporting network which keeps them focused and motivated. It could be their training peers, seasoned athletes, Club and Federation administrators, and also coaches. The depth of such resources on this little Rock is, unfortunately, extremely shallow, and when it comes to people chemistries it sort of becomes an alchemy. At that age, you would be physically growing extremely fast but deep within you would still be a little child who is still learning about the world, whom to trust and how to behave. That's a lot for anyone to handle and perform at the same time. Some manage to succeed. In my case my sports career had suffered.

Later on in my life, however, I defied all mental barriers people usually set up to quit or slow down their training. In 2011 I had started reading for my Masters. I was working, studying and training every day. In 2013 I broke the 50s barrier for the first time in the 400m, I qualified for the first time in the Games of the Small States of Europe where I won a bronze medal in the 4x400 and in the same year I was finishing my Masters Degree living alone abroad, and managed to obtain the highest possible marks. This is perhaps one of the most important medals on my chest and a good story up my sleeve for anyone, parents and athletes alike, who get disheartened because of exams.

I managed to convert my struggle with training into my drive to talk to the younger athletes and trying to encourage them whenever I can. It is what I needed at their age, and now it's my turn to help!

 

You are a proud Savio College past pupil and nowadays the President of Savio Athletic Club. You have a great sense of belonging to the Club and transmit it to your athletes diligently. A club thriving gradually but surely. You followed the footsteps of  Fr Frank Clifton who really embraced sports in the fairest possible way. Fr Clifton was an inspiration to many of Savio AC athletes and I reckon you are proof of that. Savio Athletics Club prides itself on organising a Relay around the coast of Malta and the proceeds are devolved to Voluntary Organisations for good causes. So far this event is really picking up and even the amount of money is increasing year by year. What other commendable matters, apart from this, are you applying the true Salesian spirit in our Sports?

Salesian spirit is a big thing indeed, but I will boil it down to three simple points. First, St. John Bosco always emphasised that his boys would be "honest citizens and good Christians". At Savio AC we believe that our role in the world of athletics is to champion honesty and good values. It is not our role to be religious: despite coming from a Christian background, faith is not an issue in our Club. It is our role, however, to strive at fostering an environment conducive to respect, honesty, friendship and a strong sense of community amongst our athletes and beyond.

Second, and another quote by St. John Bosco close to my heart, is that to do "ordinary things in an extraordinary way". Savio AC is an extremely young club. When forming the first committee, the oldest member was 27 years old. Our committee is surely the youngest one in athletics, and I dare say one of the youngest in the sports community in Malta. We acknowledge our lack of experience and resources, but we never use it as an excuse for failure or mistakes. In all activities we do we commit ourselves in delivering the very best within our limited capabilities. When, for example, organising the Round Malta Relay we don't necessarily aim for an extraordinary number of athletes: we try to reach as far as we can, then we work hard so that whoever is joining gets the best of experiences, and that the Charity gets the best of exposures. Similarly to our coaching pathway, whereby we decided to take the long and ambitious route of forming our young members with multiple courses and mentorships so that, one day, perhaps in 6 years time, we will have very good coaches.

Finally, we believe that athletics should be a joyful experience. The joy of competing, the joy of belonging, the joy of human life as the basis of our sport. In our activities we do our best to invest in the experience rather in beurocracy and procedures. Tough words? Just some examples. When we organise our Relay Championships we make it as easy as possible for anyone to compete. If there is a Club who has, for example, 3 boys willing to participate, they will be allowed and encouraged to fill in that extra space with anyone else, be it either a girl or someone from another Club. When doing our Triangular League with our colleagues at La Salle AC and Athletix Gozo, a league for very young children, we allow children to participate even if they do not have Clubs. Our Training Camps are a good combination of personal formation, training but also good fun activities.

 

Matthew, you have reached an age where you have to give it all cause you are at the peak of your athletic performance. You are constantly under pressure to perform the best and to take advantage of the situation. At times, things do not go the way you want: an injury, concerns over questionable performances and more. The life of an athlete is short even though you have been running for decades now. What do you have in your bucket list once you retire from your beloved sports? A gentle reminder that you have even coached for a couple of years Jake Gauci, twins Kristy and Charlene Fenech, Stephanie Buttigieg, Giada Scicluna and with efficient results. They are still active and their performance is going from strength to strength. Your patience, motivation, innovation and the exemplary way you deal with athletics can entice you for coaching. Have you got other plans outside athletics?

For this intriguing question I will have to give you a diplomatic answer. My primary focus at the moment is to make the best out of my current form. Although I do agree with you that thinking about the future is inevitable, trying to formulate these thoughts into something more tangible is both futile and risky. Why? Just an example, when Usain Bolt expressed his intentions of retiring a year later, that was his first step towards losing that final race against Justin Gatlin. Sometimes we let ourselves travel in the future, forgetting to let ourselves live the very moment. What I can say is that I do enjoy the little coaching I do with our younger athletes, but I believe that, in this very point in time, my performances can do more good to the younger generations than anything else.

 

I can vouch that you are a mindful athlete and your mind is brainstorming all the times with new ideas how to improve our local athletics. You are highly respected by local athletics and that is something uncommon or not to be taken for granted. What issues can be sorted to improve our athletics and reach a higher level?

One of the biggest challenges we have is depth and density at all levels. We are short of coaches, mentoring networks, officials and also number of athletes.

The MAAA has done a really smart move to engage coaching guru Ralph Mouchbahani to help build a local coaching structure. Mr. Mouchbahani is both knowledgeable and approachable and following his first seminar I started being more hopeful about future developments in the sport. What is sure is that we cannot keep the local scene as we know it today and expect better results, apart from those brought by sheer chance.

The lack of number of athletes is being suffered, in my opinion, most especially by middle distance runners. Whenever I go to races abroad I realize that the meets would be specifically set up for participants to do a good time. Pacers are set, the field is meticulously chosen to be within your competition. In Malta, unfortunately, the middle distance field is extremely small. The result is that you either get someone running in front alone, or someone behind trying to get themselves to the finish line. Either way, both are running alone and therefore really hard to improve. The times we are running today are already better than what we were seeing 6 years ago, true, but when compared to our cousin-countries in the GSSE, we are losing ground. There is a lot we can do, even with our limited resources. But we need to appreciate that records and personal bests do not fall from the sky - there are ways how to facilitate them.

In general, I believe that the gap between the federation and its athletes can be easily shortened in our little Malta, and that will surely reflect on the results. Being involved in our Club's administration I consider myself lucky to be able to both see and participate in administrative discussions. I know the people in the MAAA and I know that they have the best for the sport at heart. I believe the federation can be more experimental in its approaches to help local athletes get better results. Organising pacers and experimenting with different competition schedules and venues are just two very easy examples which I know would give results.

Improving, however, does not come only from the federation. Clubs and athletes need to work closer together if they really want to see things improving. It is normal to disagree, I would say it is actually healthy, but then we need to move on and grow together. Building walls within this little Rock is surely not the way to go.

 

Matthew, I would like to thank you for allowing me to interview you. It was an honour for me and now the readers are better informed of the way athletics is being perceived by you. Keep up the great work.

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