Georgia Tech's Bria Matthews competes in the women's triple jump during the 2019 ACC Indoor Track and Field Championships in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday Feb. 23, 2019. (Photo by Michael Shroyer, the ACC)
Photo: Michael Shroyer, the ACC
Photo: Michael Shroyer, the ACC

Georgia Tech’s Bria Matthews has made an incredible comeback

What Georgia Tech’s Bria Matthews loves about the triple jump is the event’s technicality – sprint down the runway, leap off one foot, plant and bound again off the same foot, then land on the opposite foot and launch into the sand pit.

“It’s a lot of things you can focus on,” Matthews said. “I like the complexity of it. I like that it’s not simple, like, not everyone can do it.”

In that light, what Matthews has managed in the triple jump this season, her fourth at Tech, speaks to the difficulty of the accomplishment, and her joy in it. After winning an ACC title as a freshman in 2016 and finishing 12th at the U.S. Olympic trials, Matthews scarcely competed for the next two years recovering from a stress reaction in her right shin, her takeoff leg.

Last fall, rather than waiting to test the right shin, she switched to take off with her left foot, basically learning the event all over again. Under the coaching of Tech jumps-and-hurdles coach Nat Page, she has steadily improved to the point that she has surpassed her marks from her freshman season and has a shot at making the U.S. Olympic team in 2020.

“Obviously, we’re incredibly proud of Bria,” Tech women’s coach Alan Drosky said. “It’s a story of perseverance.”

Matthews will compete Saturday at the NCAA East preliminary championship in Jacksonville, Fla., for a spot in the national championship meet. Chances are, not many competitors will have taken her path there.

“It’s not unusual to switch legs,” Page said. “But it’s unusual to be as good or better than you were before, especially moving up the ladder of competition.”

Matthews, a Forest Park High grad, surprised herself as a freshman in 2016 by setting the school triple-jump record at 45 feet and one-half inch to win the ACC outdoor championship. She had told herself in high school that if she got to 45 feet at Tech, she would pursue it professionally. But she figured that would be her senior year.

“And then I got 45 my freshman year, and I was like, whoa,” she said. “Like, what?”

It was the ninth best jump by an American woman that year. The future gleamed brightly. But at a fall practice the next year (“It was on a Thursday”), her shin started to hurt and, despite rest, never healed. She missed all of her sophomore season and then just about all of her junior season, too, when the stress reaction became a stress fracture. She had surgery in April 2018 to have a metal rod inserted in her leg. It was frustrating, she said, but she always held hope she’d return soon.

“I guess it just never seemed like an option to just quit,” she said. “I don’t like quitting.”

In the meantime, she took part in a research program in Tech’s electrical and computer engineering school in which she helped design a portable solar-powered battery to charge phones and power LED lights. In May 2018, she traveled with her team to Haiti to deliver the devices to families in a small village.

“I just really felt like the whole experience was amazing,” Matthews said. “I just liked seeing how happy they were, and the little kids – there were a whole bunch of little kids in the village we were in, and they would just follow us around.”

In the fall of 2018, starting her fourth year on campus, she was cleared to practice. Cautious about re-aggravating the injury, she told Page that she wanted to either wait until the outdoor season in the spring to jump again off her right leg or switch to her left. They went with the latter.

Despite the muscle memory ingrained through years of jumping, she wasn’t overwhelmed.

“When I was doing it, I didn’t think it seemed that radical just because I hadn’t triple jumped off my right leg in two years,” she said. “So it was like, I was going to have to learn either way.”

Page kept her on a slow course, limiting her running and starting with modest hops in the sand to lessen the impact.

She made a full declaration of her return at the ACC indoor championship on Feb. 23, when she won with a jump of 43-4 1/4. It was a full two feet better than her previous season best, set just two weeks before.

Two weeks after the ACC meet, she went almost another foot better at the NCAA indoor championship (44-3 1/2, good for fifth), her indoor personal record. On May 11 – a week after graduating with highest honors in electrical engineering – she won the ACC outdoor title at 45-2 1/4. It broke her own school record – set three years ago, off the opposite leg, after missing two years of training – by a hair less than two inches.

“Extremely competitive, extremely smart, extremely humble,” Page said.

(She’s not perfect. During her recovery, when she cross-trained by riding her bike, she didn’t understand why she was going so slow until a teammate pointed out her tire was flat. Said Drosky, “That kind of sums up Bria.” She also slacked off enough to get three B’s.)

Matthews wants to get to 47 feet before the season ends, which will be either at Saturday’s East prelims or the NCAA championship in two weeks. Then, she’ll go to Arizona for an internship with Intel, during which time she’ll train on her own.

The U.S. national meet, which will also be a trial for the world championships this fall in Qatar, is at the end of July. The national meet will be a preview for the Olympic trials in June 2020, where Matthews would need to finish in the top three to go to Tokyo. In 2018, the third best American triple jump was 45-7. Page said that Matthews “most definitely” should be in the running.

This fall, with eligibility remaining because she missed seasons as she recovered, she’ll begin pursuing a master’s in electrical engineering. It has been quite the journey.

Said Page, “She’s going to walk away from this thing going, ‘You know what? This happened, but I succeeded.’”

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