on track for glory
The next few days will be an anxious time for Irish 800m and 1,000m record holder David Matthews, who now trains the Cork hurling team and is headed for Croke Park on Saturday evening for the replay of the All-Ireland final against Clare.
For the past few weeks since the drawn game, David has been charged with the task of making sure the Rebel County players will return to Croke Park with fresh legs – lively and fully engaged in mind, body and spirit.
David knows a lot about peaking for top performance, and the former Olympian has made a big difference to the Cork panel since team manager Jimmy Barry Murphy two years ago invited him on board as team trainer.
David has seen his national 800m record of 1:44.82 stand since 1995 and he still remembers that night in Rieti, outside Rome. "I can best describe that run as feeling effortless and the sensation akin to hitting your best ever golf drive or striking the sliotar perfectly on the sweet spot of the hurley," he said. "It was one of those nights when I felt in the zone, completely at one with myself."
Training the Cork hurlers has given David a whole new lease of life and he became fully engaged in the operation from day one.
"It was a rare and wonderful opportunity for me to get involved in another sport at such a high level, and I have brought some of my athletic training experience to bear in what I do with the Cork players," he said.
David has placed strong emphasis this year on speed and agility after working hard during the previous 12 months to help the players develop a strong foundation of endurance.
"I think that GAA teams train as hard as top track athletes," David said. "Their fitness levels are right up there with the best in athletics, and the Cork players train six days a week."
Now 39, David continues to pay strict attention to his own fitness. He retired from track competition at age 26.
"I had accumulated a lot of miles on the clock physically and emotionally, and then the carding requirement came in and you felt under an onus to qualify for championships to ensure your funding," he said.
"I got married in 2000. I wasn't making any money from running. I had a house and a mortgage, I had to hold down a job, so I had to make a decision at 26 that it was time to move on."
The death of his long-time coach, mentor and friend Noel Carroll in 1998 was another factor nudging David towards retirement. Noel spotted David's potential in June of 1992 when the Leaving Certificate student won an 800m race in UCD – beating the pick of Irish and British Varsities' talent as well as a US contingent.
"From that night, I instantly hit it off with Noel," David said. "Noel said: 'You will come to UCD with me', and there was no question of me going to the States on a scholarship.
"Noel was more than an athletics coach – he was a coach of life, a mentor, the guru who would put you on the straight and narrow if you were having any personal problems. You would go for a jog with him, off-load your troubles, get on with training and that was it."
The only regret David has is that he never moved up to race at 1,500m. "I still hold the Irish record of 2:17.58 for 1,000m, and looking back, I think that I could have run well over 1,500m," he said.
On Saturday evening, David will be hoping the Cork hurlers will collectively experience something like the feeling of invincibility that he felt that night long ago in Rieti.
He knows that young Irish athletes like Mark English and Paul Robinson are soon going to beat his 800m record and he would love nothing better than to get involved in coaching athletics, where he feels sure he can help deliver success on a par with what he has already achieved in Cork.