Althea Thomas was driving home from a track meet last Saturday night when her phone started buzzing nonstop.
Without bothering to glance at the messages, the University of Georgia assistant track and field coach turned to a colleague and told him her prized recruit must have just posted another fast time.
“I always joke that I know when he’s running because I get texts from everybody,” Thomas said. “Friends in the stands, coaches from other high schools, they all want to be the first to tell me, ‘Your boy just did this.’ ”
What Matthew Boling accomplished at the Texas Region III-6A track meet last Saturday was a remarkable feat even by his standards. Aided by a tailwind of just over twice the legal limit, the 18-year-old phenom ran the 100 meters in 9.98 seconds, the fastest all-conditions mark a high school sprinter has ever recorded at the distance.
No high school sprinter has ever cracked the fabled 10-second barrier during a wind-legal race. Only Trayvon Bromell had done it under any conditions while still in high school, posting a wind-aided time of 9.99 seconds at a 2013 meet.
To hear Bromell describe it, running such a blazing time at a young age is both a curse and a blessing. He had to learn to ignore detractors who described his time as a wind-aided fluke until he proved them wrong by becoming the world junior record holder in the 100, capturing the NCAA title in the event as a freshman at Baylor and overcoming an ill-timed Achilles injury to reach the 2016 Olympic final.
“If I had an opportunity to talk to Matt to tell him what he’s going to experience after running 9 seconds, I’d tell him he’s going to have to deal with the same thing,” Bromell said. “A lot of people are going to tell him he got lucky and he can’t do it again, but Matt has to ignore that. He has to believe that this is only scratching the surface of what he can do.”
There’s reason to believe there is plenty more left in Boling’s legs. Throwing down a blazing time in track and field’s glamour event has tripled Boling’s followers on Twitter and transformed him into a YouTube sensation, but in reality, it may not even be his most impressive mark of the year.
The University of Georgia signee boasts high school track and field’s fastest wind-legal times in both the 100 (10.22) and 200 (20.58), both achieved in mid-March at the Texas Relays. At the same event, he also won the long jump with a wind-legal mark of 26 feet, 3.5 inches, the seventh-best distance in high school track and field history.
In a sport littered with former high school phenoms who peaked too early and never panned out, Boling’s rare combination of supernatural talent and unwavering focus could help him defy the odds. Experts point to Boling’s prowess in multiple events as evidence that he has the potential to someday qualify for the Olympics and emerge as one of the faces of U.S. track and field.
“Most young prodigies do not pan out, but most of those athletes weren’t doing this well in so many events,” said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist in the 100 and 200 meters and NBC’s top analyst for track and field. “He’s an all-around athlete. He’s that good in four different events. The reason I think he’ll defy the odds is he’s a better athlete than most of the prodigies that have not gone all the way.”
The most surprising aspect of Boling’s ascendant spring has been his rise to prominence in the 100 meters. As recently as last season, track and field’s signature race wasn’t really part of his repertoire.
In his junior year at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston, Boling emerged as one of high school track and field’s top long jumpers and quarter milers. He won a Texas 6A state title in the long jump, finished one hundredth of a second shy of another one in the 400 meters and helped the U.S. 4x400-meter relay capture silver at the U-20 World Championships in Finland.
It was Boling’s success in the 400 that first enticed Georgia to offer a scholarship last summer. Not only was Boling’s personal-best time of 46.1 seconds impressive for a high school junior, Thomas also came away amazed at how he maintained his running form and stuck to his race strategy while competing internationally for the first time last summer.
“You would have thought he was in his backyard racing his twin brother,” Thomas said. “His poise was the most impressive thing to me. He wasn’t racing like a teenager who had never been outside Texas before.”
For the first time in his high school career, Boling gravitated toward the short sprints this season with jaw-dropping results. The blond-haired senior has blown away the competition, showcasing world-class acceleration and textbook upright sprint mechanics that allow him to cover ground at an astonishing pace.
The times that Boling has posted have been so fast that it has forced Georgia’s coaching staff to alter its plans for him. Whereas Thomas recruited Boling to run the 400 and 200 for the Bulldogs, now she thinks the short sprints and the long jump should be his longterm focus.
The attention that Boling has received since breaking the 10-second barrier in the 100 has been unlike anything he has experienced before. A spokesman for Strake Jesuit said that so many media outlets have reached out that Boling, his family and his high school coach have all stopped doing interviews until after the Texas state meet.
If Boling continues to excel beyond high school, he’ll need to get used to being in the spotlight. Just as a black swimming or golfing prodigy draws undue attention for defying societal norms, so will Boling as the rare white sprinter with world-class speed.
“Having a white American sprinter do well is good for the sport,” Boldon said. “I like people to have to let go of their tightly held beliefs. I like stereotypes to be crushed.
“The best thing about Matthew is that it’s not like he’s good for a white sprinter. This kid is good period. I didn’t become enamored with him because of his color. I became enamored with him because of his ability.”
What should help Boling stay focused and grounded is that he possesses a uniquely goal-driven mentality instilled in him by his family.
Boling and twin brother Michael are the sons of a prominent attorney who has worked in the energy industry his entire career and dedicated himself to finding solutions to climate change. Both boys take such great pride in their academics that Thomas has learned to only call Boling on the weekends and never the night before a school assignment was due.
That work ethic translates just as well on the track as the classroom. Boling dissects every race he runs with Thomas minutes after he gets off the track, often sending her video and asking how he can improve.
Where he still has the most room for growth in the 100 is with his start mechanics, no surprise considering the event is still very new to him. Boldon estimates he could run a wind-legal sub-10-second time right now just by cleaning that up.
“If he cleans up the first 15, 20 meters of his race, then he’d really be off to the races,” Boldon said. “He has loads of top-end speed and his acceleration is phenomenal.”
Where Boldon envisions Boling making the biggest immediate impact for USA Track and Field is in the long jump. Thanks to the combination of Boling’s increasing speed and Georgia’s recent history of developing horizontal jumpers, Boldon believes that the 18-year-old could contend for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 2020 in the event.
It may take a few years longer for Boling to develop into a contender for Olympic and World Championship teams in the loaded sprint events, but he has the raw ability to achieve that too someday.
“He’s in a position to run the type of times needed to win national championships and have a pro career,” Thomas said. “His potential is limitless.”
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