High School Breaststroker Josh Matheny Chasing Olympic Bid to Tokyo

Swimming World June 2021 - Josh Matheny - Rising Star

High School Breaststroker Josh Matheny Chasing Olympic Bid to Tokyo

Josh Matheny had prepared physically for the holiday burst of training last December, with school on break and two-a-days on the docket. He was less ready for the logistical ordeal of finding somewhere to work out, even as the “roller coaster” of 2020 had deposited so many challenges in his way.

As restrictions in Pennsylvania ramped up to curb a rise in COVID-19 cases, Matheny was on the road as much as in the water, getting creative to find open pools. With Pittsburgh Elite Aquatics training partner Nico Butera, he attended open swims at SPIRE Institute in Ohio, renting an Airbnb to do doubles, at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., for a week. The next week, Matheny commuted an hour each way to Morgantown to swim at the University of West Virginia. He and Butera rang in the New Year with Luke Barr, Matheny’s future Indiana University teammate, who is from Nebraska and has family in Arizona. Together with a group of five others, they headed west for a true training escape.

“I’ve been pretty much everywhere just to get as much training as possible,” Matheny said. “It’s been a wild ride.”

Matheny’s multi-year ride has vaulted him into the upper echelons of American swimming. From a middle-schooler newly committed to swimming full-time in 2016, he approaches the U.S. Olympic Trials for Tokyo as a contender in the men’s breaststroke events, with national high school records and international medals in hand. As the one-year postponement of the Games has pushed many established names in the breaststroke field deeper into their late 20s, it’s only benefitted the high school senior’s maturation.

Matheny’s gains in the pool are built on a level-headed approach out of it, one that comes from being relatively new to swimming. Until he was in middle school, swimming was just one of the sports he participated in, along with lacrosse and hockey. Aquatic talent runs in the family – older sister Abby Matheny swims at Williams College – but Josh was allowed to discover the sport for himself.

His athleticism on dry land and the competitive drive from team sports continues to serve him.

“I didn’t think I needed to be laser-focused on swimming because I think that would’ve led to a burnout relatively quickly,” Matheny said. “It helped me fall in love with swimming because I got to experience all these different types of sports and realize that swimming was the sport for me instead of being forced into it when I was little.”

The love informs a dogged training approach. Dave Schraven has coached Matheny since he was nine years old, through Upper St. Clair swim club, then PEAC and Upper St. Clair High. He’s witnessed the rapid benefits Matheny has reaped in his teens, going from a 13-year-old few had heard of to a national name by 15.

“I think it makes him more focused on swimming now because he wasn’t just living swimming since he was eight,” Schraven said. “It makes him fresher. And if you consider the sports of lacrosse and hockey, there’s a toughness element to the sports which I think is helpful.”

“He’s just athletic at everything he does, except basketball. I will say that one,” said Butera, a Wisconsin signee. “But he’s just a natural athlete and he brings that athletic mentality to the pool every day.”

The summer of 2018 is when Matheny made a name for himself, winning a pair of medals at Junior Nationals at 15. He won the 100 breast in 1:01.06, a drop of nearly three seconds from his personal best, then finished second to A.J. Pouch in the 200, trimming more than five seconds to 2:12.69.

But the foundation for that performance was laid at what Schraven regards as his breakout meet, the 2017 Futures Championships at SPIRE. Matheny came out of nowhere there, against swimmers as much as six years older, to win both breaststroke events in massive time drops.

He’d already made the decision to stick with swimming. But his performance in Geneva made him realize just how prosperous a path it could be.

“I dropped a ton of time and started to see myself on the national ranking list and relatively high,” Matheny said. “At the same time, it wasn’t even the time drops, it was that some of the people on the team became my best friends. I just really started enjoying got to swimming every single day.”

Those meets opened doors. Matheny qualified for the World Junior Championships in 2019, before his junior year at Upper St. Clair. He left Budapest with gold and a championship record of 2:09.40 in the 200 breast, silver in the 100, silver in the men’s medley relay and gold in the mixed medley.

He’d made history in the high school ranks as a sophomore. At the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Championships, he took down a state record in prelims that had been held since 2000 by Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder Brendan Hansen, then in finals downed the NFHS record held since 2016 by Chandler Bray, going 52.52.

He was poised for more history at states as a junior in 2020, taking the top spot in prelims with a nice and easy 54.34. But that meet, held on March 12, was caught in the deluge of COVID-19 cancellations. Matheny was at the team’s hotel at Bucknell University for the surreal mid-meet cancellation of finals. Gone, too, were the spring nationals he was ready to taper for.

“I was on a roll,” he said. “Every time I swam, I was swimming fast and I was really excited about how I was swimming. I thought I was in the best shape of my life. … I remember sitting in the hotel room with my roommates, and our coach called us and was like, ‘we’re going home.’ We thought he was joking, like, ‘haha that’s funny but not funny.’ And he was like, ‘I’m not kidding; we’re getting on the bus in 10 minutes.’ That definitely was devastating.”

It was merely the appetizer to a disjointed spring. Luckily, Matheny’s training has been largely uninterrupted since May thanks to outdoor pools in Western PA, despite moments where he and his family weighed sending him to relatives in Florida to find open pools.

His results haven’t missed a beat. At the PIAA Championships, he reset the NFHS record by going 51.84 and also won the 200 IM in 1:47.54. He tied Olympic medalist and future Bloomington training partner Cody Miller in the 100 (1:00.31) and outdueled him in the 200 at Speedo Sectionals in Indianapolis. Matheny ranks 11th in the 100 and eighth in the 200 among all Americans since the start of 2019, per USA Swimming’s database.

With a couple of tuneups before Omaha, Matheny’s goals have shifted slightly. A year ago, finaling at Trials would’ve been an unqualified success, his sites firmly on 2024.

“The A final is probably still the main goal, but I want to do the best I can,” he said. “I want to swim as fast as possible, and if that ends up being better than just an A final, I will be very happy with that.”

His coach is blunter.

“He’s trying to make the team,” Schraven said. “We look at the extra year that he’s had, of the people that he’s competing with for spots in the breaststroke, and I think he’s benefitted the most from that. … We know that it’s extremely competitive and very difficult to do, but we’re not approaching this as trying for a moral victory. We’re preparing as though we’re going to do whatever it takes to get him on that team.”

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