Is High School Sprint Phenom and Viral Star Matthew Boling the Future of Track?

Back at the end of winter, before that one fast race and before Matthew Boling was transported across the cultural bridge that changes a young human into an italicized, OMG, capital-T Thing, he was just an 18-year-old high school senior who could run faster and jump farther than his peers. He liked to play games like Rocket League and Apex Legends indoors and hardball Home Run Derby outside. Eat his mom's scrambled eggs for breakfast. Listen to Travis Scott. He was a good student but not as good as his fraternal twin, Michael, the high school valedictorian. His dad still called him Chewy because he had once been obsessed with Star Wars. Or, as Matthew explains it more succinctly: "I had about 1,500 Instagram followers." It was all somewhere on the very high end of normal.

Now Matthew Boling is something else altogether. He is the vessel into which the track and field community has poured its endless hope for youthful potential that might grow into breakout relevance (among the names attached to Boling's by breathless observers of the sport in the last three months: Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis). And into which the wider culture has poured its fascination with any athlete who doesn't look quite like the other athletes, a phenomenon that runs from the vaguely comical to the very ugly. Three months ago Matthew was largely anonymous; now he is viral. Again, over to Boling, who is sitting in his track coach's office at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston, gulping water from a gallon jug and scrolling on his iPhone XR, fresh out of the box. "Right now," he says, "I've got 105,000 Instagram followers." And then he gives a little shake of his head, absorbing the madness and then dismissing it.

It all started in the middle of March. Boling had been a rising scholastic runner and jumper for two years. As a junior he had won the 6A (the highest level) long jump state championship with a leap of 24 feet and finished second in the 400 meters in 46.76 seconds, just .01 behind the winner. (He had previously run 46.15.) Matthew's performances were among the nation's best and good enough that he accepted a scholarship to Georgia, one of the strongest programs in the country. That's all very significant, as far as it goes—which is to say, not outside the picket fence that surrounds the track world.

But then:

On March 16 at the Texas Southern Relays in Houston, Boling was entered in the 100 meters, the one event in which a track star can most readily become known outside the picket fence. This was not planned: Strake was missing an injured runner for the 4 x 400-meter relay, so with no long relay to run, Boling was available for his first open 100 meters. Strake coach Chad Collier submitted a seed time of 10.35 seconds, which would have ranked ninth among U.S. high school sprinters in 2018. "Matthew had run some pretty amazing splits on our [4 x 100-meter relay]," says Collier. "So I was pretty confident about that number."

Matthew, not so much. "That looked awful fast on the paper," he says.

Boling ran 10.28 in his preliminary heat and 10.22 in the final, a time that's at the outer edges of the best by any high school runner. (The high school record is 10.00.) This was big, but also just a prelude. Two weeks later Boling ran a slightly wind-aided 10.20 to win the 100 at the Texas Relays, and also long-jumped 26'3", the best this year by a high school athlete (and the 11th best in history). And then on April 27, at the region championships in Webster, Texas, Boling ran 100 meters in 9.98 seconds, though with a tailwind of 4.2 meters per second (just under 10 mph), more than twice the allowable limit for record purposes. No high school sprinter had ever run that fast, even with wind at his back. "Crowd went crazy," says Boling, recalling the moment. "Nine-nine-eight. I didn't even care about the wind." Video of the performance exploded. On YouTube multiple versions of that race each have nearly a million views. Boling's anonymity was gone. He appeared on NBC Nightly News, CNN and BBC. A reporter from a British tabloid knocked on the family's front door on two consecutive nights, promising to tell "the real story behind Matthew."

Then, the encore. At the state meet on May 11, Boling won the 100 in a wind-legal 10.13 seconds, tied for the fastest time ever in regular-season high school competition and tied for the fifth fastest by any U.S. high school sprinter, anywhere at any time. In that same meet Boling won his second straight title in the long jump (25'4") and anchored the Strake 4 x 400 relay to victory by walking down the leader from at least 20 meters behind in a blistering 44.75 seconds, which is borderline world class. That footage went viral, as well.

Now meet the elephant on the track. If Boling were black, his performances would have merely energized the track world. He is not black; he is white, with curly reddish hair. The effect of this is best expressed by Renaldo Nehemiah, a former world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles and a longtime agent for many track athletes, including Olympic and world champion sprinter Justin Gatlin. "I watched the video of that 9.98," says Nehemiah, "and as I'm watching I'm thinking, stereotypically, How is he pulling away from those guys?"

This reaction is baked into the sport, where it's long been assumed that black athletes will dominate sprints. The last white Olympic medalist in the 100 meters was Allan Wells of Great Britain, who won gold in 1980, when the U.S. boycotted. Before that, Valery Borzov of the former Soviet Union won gold in '72 and bronze in '76. In the 200 meters, Christophe Lemaitre of France took bronze in 2016 and also has run 9.92 for 100 meters. (The world record for the 100 is Usain Bolt's 9.58 in 2009.) The reigning world champion in the 200 meters is Ramil Guliyev of Turkey. Still, the stereotype that Nehemiah described persists. The Internet gave Matthew a nickname: White Lightning. He doesn't like it. The Internet did other things, too. Websites devoted to white nationalist and neo-Nazi voices adopted Boling. It was obscene.

Boling has tried to turn away, a massive challenge for a teenager (with a new phone) in 2019. "I see things in the comments and on social media," Boling says. "That's not what I pay attention to. That's not the story. The story is that I have the top time in the nation. That stuff only comes up outside the track. Inside the sport, whenever you get into the block, all that matters is who's fastest. My competitors respect me, I respect them. Nobody talks about that other stuff."

Two decades ago Kevin Little underwent a similar experience, though without the amplification of social media. Little was a white 200-meter runner; he finished eighth in the 1996 Olympic trials and won the '97 indoor world championship. "I don't think we've progressed very far on this," says Little, now 51. "It's a societal thing. It's bigger in America than other places in the world. But if people are questioning whether you belong, the best thing to do is lay down a fast time on the track. Once you're legitimized, the other stuff takes care of itself."

Jeremy Wariner, who is white, made the U.S. Olympic team in the 400 meters in 2004, after his sophomore year at Baylor, then won gold in Athens. His best time of 43.45 seconds is equal to the sixth-fastest ever. "It was mainly a media thing, people talking about me being the white guy," says Wariner, 35, a high school track coach in his hometown of Dallas. "I didn't have to deal with social media. But once I hit the world scene, won that gold medal, it was never about race after that. It was just about the performance."

And there is another side to this awkward topic. "I'm excited about an athlete who can affect the diversity and access level in the sport," says Nehemiah. (The ironic part of this statement is that track and field is among the most egalitarian of sports; a track meet is America at its most inclusive, encompassing all manner of body types, races and backgrounds. The catch is those differences are generally grouped by event.)

Collier, Boling's high school coach, says, "I've heard people compare Matthew to Tiger Woods, because Tiger inspired black kids to take up golf, and maybe Matthew inspires some white kids to try sprinting." (Clearly, the access issue here is not analogous, but that doesn't mean the hypothetical is invalid.)

David Oliver, bronze medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2008 Olympics, '13 world champion in that event and now the coach at Howard, says, "With him being a white guy, and doing amazing things in the sprint and jumps, of course that's a big deal, and it's all good. He's bringing new recognition to our sport. We need that."

There is also a business aspect, because there is always a business aspect. "Some shoe company could take a look and say, 'This kid is white. We're going to market that to suburbia,'" says four-time Olympic medalist and NBC track analyst Ato Boldon. "There is a lot of money out there, not for all track athletes, but for the top ones." Boling has at least three meets scheduled this summer, all of which could affect his present and future value.

Marketing Boling would require that he sign a professional contract and forfeit his college eligibility. Allyson Felix, who has nine Olympic medals (six gold), did not compete in college. Nor did 21-year-old U.S. sprinter Noah Lyles, who will be a threat to win multiple medals at this fall's world championships and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Boling's dad, Mark, recently launched a sustainable energy company connected to the oil and gas industry. (Asked if this is a popular pursuit in Texas, Mark says, "Hellllllllll, no.") "He'll be in college for at least two years," Mark says of Matthew. "The biggest worry is we just don't want his personality to change. He's a great kid. He's humble."

For the present, Matthew's career is entrusted to Georgia coach Petros Kyprianou. While Boling's 100-meter performances have made him a track celebrity, it is his range across multiple events that makes him truly unusual. There was a time when college coaches saw Boling as a decathlete; he triple-jumped more than 43 feet as a high school freshman and high-jumped 6'7" as a sophomore. But Boling developed knee pain that necessitated cutting back on field events, eliminating the punishing decathlon as a future endeavor. Boling is 6 feet and 160 pounds, lean and wiry, built along the same lines as 400-meter world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa. But his training under Collier has been extensive, a regimen based on coach Clyde Hart's sprint program at Baylor, which produced Michael Johnson and Wariner.

The challenge for Kyprianou lies in finding Boling's best event. As of June 6, Boling's best wind-legal 100-meter time (10.13) ranked him 47th in the world; his 400 (46.15 last year) did not rank in the top 100; his long jump (26'3") was 34th, and seventh among Americans. Hence, the long jump would seem to present his best path to making the U.S. Olympic team next summer. "He's gone 26'3" and run 9.98 windy," says Kyprianou. "That's Carl Lewis material." (Lewis is the greatest sprinter--long jumper in history, with personal bests of 9.86 and 29'1", the third-longest jump ever.) Kyprianou says, "Right now, Matthew is probably using 30% of that 9.98 speed in the long jump, because his body just isn't strong enough to handle it—yet. That's something we will work on."

The track and field library is full of cautionary tales about athletes who never won the medals or set the records that their teenaged performances seemed to foretell. Boling has run his 10.13, but Lyles has run 9.86 and Christian Coleman, the 23-year-old 2017 world championship silver medalist (behind Justin Gatlin and in front of Bolt), has run 9.79. "It's a long way from ten-one to nine-eight," says Boldon, who ran 9.86 in his career. "I mean, that's a lifetime. But he's legit world class in multiple events, which means he's really special."

College will help. For the first time in his life Boling will practice and race against athletes at—or beyond—his level. "He'll come to the realization that he's not that special," says Kyprianou. "And that will be a good thing, because he's really hypercompetitive. That separates him from a lot of guys who are just talented."

Marquise Goodwin—the Texas graduate who holds the high school long jump record (26'10" in 2009), made the 2012 Olympic team and has played wide receiver for six years in the NFL (currently with the 49ers)—sought out Boling at the Texas Relays, and they exchanged cell numbers. "His performances speak for themselves," said Goodwin. "That's the beauty of track and field. What struck me was his aura. He was, I want to say, respectful. I'm only 28, but you don't see that with many young kids. He was respectful, and gracious, and mature. That's a great sign."

Collier says, "He's got a fanatical work ethic, and he's a sponge when it comes to coaching."

Now it is a steamy weeknight in Houston, and Boling has come to Rice for one in a series of weekly all-comers meets. He is lugging the same gallon jug of water and checking the same phone that he had at his interview earlier in the day. He dreams about the future: "Going to the Olympics. Being on world championship teams." The guys he looks up to, like Lyles and Coleman, could soon be his opponents and teammates. "Would be so cool to run a four-by-one with those guys," Matthew says. (He's also a fan of Van Niekerk and Cuban long jumper Juan Miguel Echevarría.) He has had some fun with all of this. When Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said on a radio show that he would race anybody for $10,000, Boling quote-tweeted back "Bet." That tweet has more than 39,000 likes. "I was just messing around," says Boling. "Then it blew up."

On this night he wins the 200 meters in 20.68 seconds and finishes second in the long jump, at 24'7". His parents are here, and so is his brother. It's mellow. At the end, Boling snags his backpack and starts across the infield. A little boy stops him, and the boy's dad takes a picture. Boling again gathers his pack and his jug and slowly resumes his walk into the warm Texas night, one day further from innocence.

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