Matthew Russell never gave the sport of track and field a single thought before this spring, but he should be allowed some leeway about participating in the sport where he is already among the very best runners in the nation in his respective age group.
After all, Matthew, a native of Hoboken, is only 8 years old. Eight-year-old kids aren’t supposed to give participating in sports much thought. Like sports gear giant Nike once used as its advertising slogan, kids the age of Matthew Russell just do it.
His track and field career began innocently last March, when his mother, Denise, enrolled Matthew in the track and field program at his elementary school in Bergen County.
“My mom signed me up to run,” Matthew Russell said. “I never even thought about it. I don’t think I even knew I was going to run. I knew I was a pretty good runner and I figured that I could do it.” Matthew’s mom first thought about allowing her son to participate in track last year, but she thought at age seven, he was a tad too young.
“But the gym teacher at his school was excited about Matthew running, because he knew Matthew was fast,” Denise LaGalia said. “So we let him join track this spring.”
Little did anyone know that it would be the spark that would eventually ignite a fledgling track and field career.
Young Matthew turned into an instant success on the track, dominating track meets on the elementary school level.
“He always knew he was the fastest kid in school, but he didn’t know track and field from a hole in the wall,” said Matthew’s father, Chuck Russell. “When he began to win races in the 50-meter, the 400-meter, and the 800-meter, some by more than a half of a lap, then I looked into entering him in other AAU races.”
Russell, who is an avid runner himself and regularly takes to the streets of Hoboken, checked out AAU events on line. He soon realized that he missed the opportunity to enter Matthew in local AAU events, like the district and region meets.
“I saw that he could still qualify for the AAU Junior Nationals if he competed in a national meet in Orlando,” Chuck Russell said. “We were going to Florida anyway for a vacation, so we entered Matthew in a race down there [at the Disney Sports Complex].”
Matthew Russell was being thrust onto a scene where there are far more experienced runners, not kids who climbed onto the track for the very first time just four months prior. But he was mentally prepared for the event in Orlando, held during the first week of July.
“My Dad told me that I could do it,” Matthew Russell said. “I was a little surprised.”
Young Matthew earned a medal in at the Orlando event, which automatically qualified him for the AAU Junior Olympics, which were scheduled to be held in Detroit at Eastern Michigan University.
“I wasn’t too nervous about the race in Orlando,” Matthew admitted, “but I was much more nervous about the race in Detroit. I figured that I would just listen to Dad and just run.”
In the weeks prior to the AAU Junior Olympics, the Russells, father and son, would run from their home in Hoboken to the new athletic facility in the Weehawken Waterfront Park.
“He doesn’t have a coach and he doesn’t have a track club to train with,” Chuck Russell said. “So we would run to the park and he had a chance to run at that great facility, which is better than any track he ran on. Without that track, we wouldn’t have any other place to go. At the national level, the training and the coaching is so intense.”
After three weeks of working out on the track in Weehawken, the Russells went to Detroit to compete in the Junior Olympics.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much,” Chuck Russell said.
The elder Russell didn’t have any reason to expect anything at the national meet in Detroit. After all, Matthew qualified 45th in a field of 60 competitors in the 800-meter run.
“We just went to see how well he would do,” Chuck Russell said.
No one could have ever expected what young Matthew would do. He finished ninth overall, running the event in 2:48. It was the fastest time recorded by any runner in New Jersey and the Northeast. Needless to say, it’s a pretty remarkable achievement by a young runner who didn’t even know he was a runner until four months ago.
“I never thought I would do this good,” Matthew Russell said. “I thought I might be lucky to finish in the top 20 or 30. But getting ninth is pretty good.”
It is definitely the start of what could become a very promising track career – one that deserves watching over the years to come.
“I definitely want to keep running,” Matthew Russell said. “I really like it. I guess I would have to say my best race is the 800-meters. But in the winter, I’m going to train to see if I can qualify for the 2,000-meters. I’m looking at my times and working on personal bests.”
“He definitely has his goals,” Denise LaGalia said. “He’s very determined now.”
For now, young Matthew has been glued to the television, watching the Olympics – an event he would someday love to compete in. Although the track and field events had not begun by press time – he’s a big fan of sprinter Tyson Gay – Matthew has definitely caught his fair share of Phelps Phever, watching the exploits of sensational swimmer Michael Phelps.
Matthew is also an avid fan of the Denver Broncos and the New York Mets, with his favorite player David Wright.
But as for his incredible achievements?
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Matthew Russell said. “I didn’t think I could do this well so soon. It definitely inspires me to do more.”
Yes, he’s only 8 years old. He’s an inspiration to everyone. – Jim Hague