Former OCU rower still eyeing the Olympic Games
Getting cut from his high school baseball team as a freshman in St. Louis, Mo., sent Matt Mahon down a different path in life.
“That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Mahon, who is now an elite rower training at the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center in the Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River.
“My mom, who is a teacher in St. Louis, had a couple of students who had rowed. She said, ‘Oh, you should give this rowing thing a shot.' I went down and really enjoyed it.”
Competing for the St. Louis Rowing Club in high school, Mahon twice qualified for the youth national championships. He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma City University where he rowed for four years on the varsity team before graduating in 2013.
Last summer, he was one of 10 athletes in contention for a four-man sweeping crew that would represent the United States in the Olympics. He wasn't selected for that crew so he switched boats and tried to qualify for the 2016 World Championships in the men's lightweight single, a sculling race.
In sweep racing, each rower uses one oar. In sculling, each rower uses two oars.
Despite his inexperience in sculling, Mahon missed qualifying for this year's World Championships in the Netherlands by six-tenths of a second. At the July trials in Princeton, N.J., Mahon placed second in the race that he had to win to get to the Netherlands.
“I didn't have any expectations of what I was going to do (in the trials),” Mahon said. “I have been rowing a long time but there are different styles of rowing and different classes. That was the first time I competed in that class.
“I knew I was going to be competitive but I didn't think I was going to be that competitive. It was a learning experience. It was a little disappointing, but overall I took a positive from it.”
Now, Mahon is thinking about qualifying to the 2020 Olympic Games in the men's single lightweight.
“There is a strong possibility that sculling is in the future for me,” said the 25-year-old rower.
After graduating from OCU, Mahon stayed in Oklahoma City to pursue his dream of making the Olympics.
Since 2009, the Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River has been designated as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site. Since OCU athletes train in the same facility, Mahon benefited from training alongside some of the country's best rowers.
“When I first came to college, I didn't have any dreams or aspirations of racing at the Olympics or competing at the next level, but slowly throughout college that seed was planted,” he said.
“By my senior year, I knew I really wanted to try to make the Olympics at some point and make the jump to the senior national team. I wasn't necessarily training with those guys but I was seeing how they were training, seeing exactly what it took to get to be at the next level.”
At the Oklahoma Regatta Festival on Saturday, Mahon was serving a dual role. He raced in both the Head of the Oklahoma and the OGE NightSprints while coaching the men's rowing club for the University of Oklahoma and the OKC RIVERSPORT high school team.
Coaching helps him pay the bills while he continues his Olympic pursuit. Six days a week, Mahon trains twice a day and supervises daily practices for the OU men's club and the high school athletes.
Many universities have women's varsity rowing program and offer scholarships to comply with Title IX. For men's rowing, it is just a club sport at most universities, especially in the Midwest, meaning there are no scholarships given to student-athletes.
“For the women, it's different because it's an NCAA sport,” Mahon said. “For the men, it's not. There is not a Big 12 Conference or anything.”
The OU men's club does compete in regattas and the American Collegiate Rowing Association has a national championship for club teams.
The men's rowing club at OU is actually a coed squad with about 40 members, Mahon said. Most members are rowing just for fun, but some decide to take it to the next level, he said.
“A lot of people in the Olympics started rowing in high school as walk-ons,” Mahon said. “It's something people pick up later in life.”
Mahon knows it will be difficult to train for another four years in hopes of making the Olympic Games. But so far, he is enjoying the journey.
“My parents have been incredibly, incredibly supportive of my dream. They see that I still love it,” he said. “Honestly, the main reason I continue to row is because I am still having fun.
"That is what I try to instill in my athletes that I coach. As long as you are having fun, I would try to keep doing it as long as possible.”