Lydia Mato has hit the jackpot...and shattered it! She met her fortune not panning for gold in a river bed or some lost tunnel in a mountainside but on a well laid path of pressurized rubber and Poly-Resin binders.
It took just two months into her American stay in 2014 for the current Barton Community College long distance and cross country runner to put her stamp on the NJCAA track and field scene.
Mato, a 5.2 ft. sophomore from Accra, Ghana in western Africa, collected gold medals in the indoor 5000 meter, indoor 3000 meter and indoor mile runs during 2014’s US Junior College National Championships in New York. She also fought past three Kenyans to claim the 3000 and 5000 meter crowns.
It wasn’t enough. She would start the first day of the 2015 indoor national meet in Albuquerque with another 5000 meter championship and beat the runner up by 20 seconds. Just four hours later, she was at it again picking up a gold medal in the 3000 meter run outpacing the second-place runner by 17 seconds. She closed out the first day’s competition with a qualifying run in the 1000 meter. Did we mention it was a mere 30 minutes after her 3,000 meter win?
The next day, Mato posted another gold medal, this time in the mile run beating the closest competition by 10 seconds. She then went on to defeat fellow Jayhawk Conference competitor Stephanie Barrett of Cloud County in the 1000 meter run to become the first runner ever to collect four gold medals at the Indoor Championships.
Lydia has been running competitively for nearly a decade and says the competition is what drew her attention and love for the sport.
“I’ve been running since junior high school going back to 2006,” she said. “There was actually a lot of competition in my home town and they were training runners. “
She shyly confesses about the lack of enthusiasm she experienced during her early days of training in Ghana.
“I was a little lazy and not really prepared for the work that would be needed to be a competitive runner,” Mato said. “But it was the last part of the training session when they called on about 3000 people and those who could run came out ready to race. I wasn’t ready to run but when I saw all those other people lined up and running, I told my coach how badly I wanted to be in the race.”
She was given an opportunity but was admonished to develop her training ethic before competition.
“Then I went to an interschool competition and my first race was in the 1500 meter and 3000 meter and I won both of them, so it all really got started from there,” said Mato.
The Barton standout lamented over the lack of support from her peers while she was growing up which, she noted, only added to her resolve to pursue her talents.
“In my hometown, I was never encouraged to continue running,” she said. “I was told by some people that I was wasting my energy and that I would not get any further. But I knew I was going to continue running even when I got to America.”
She also noted that a sibling provided extra motivation to stay the course.
“I really got a lot of encouragement from my sister to stay in running even though she beat me before when we were racing together. But I believe she made me a much better competitor. I also had a lot of help from my coach to get me where I wanted to be.”
Mato grabbed American attention in 2009 and 2011 while she was competing as a marathon runner.
“I was running in a regional and placed 45th in the 2009 marathon but I got stronger two years later and won the marathon in 2011.”
She was then sent to Cote d’Ivore to compete in a half marathon where she also took gold.
“That was really where the coaches started getting ideas about my running. But I think also they liked my running in the 1500 and 800 meter. I got contacted by some American coaches asking for my transcripts and that’s where the opportunity came for me to compete in the United States. ”
Mato took a breath of fresh air by taking gold in the outdoor 5000 and 10,000 meter runs that same year (2014) before sliding into the national spotlight on the cross country course when she finished as the top runner at last year’s NJCAA Cross Country Championships.
“Running on a track is so much easier than running a cross country trail,” said Lydia. “You have so much more speed because you’re running on a flat surface. In cross country, you have holes and other things so you can’t run as fast.”
While Mato has tasted her share of success, adjusting to American life and culture took time especially with the English language.
“When I first came over here, the language was so hard because everybody spoke so fast,” she said. “I spoke some English when I was in Africa but it was so much harder to adjust when coming to America.”
“The competition here is also so much wider than in Ghana so I had to really improve on my training and work harder to stay with the competition,” she added.
After winning three gold medals at last year’s indoor national meet in New York, Lydia confided she had fears that she would not be able to keep the pace for 2015. Plus another event loomed on her horizon in the form of the 1000 meter run. With very little rest between races but with encouragement from teammates, Lydia set out to tackle and qualify for the 1000.
“After winning in New York, I was scared of losing the 1000 meter so I asked my teammates this year if I was able to do this and they said ‘yes you should just go for it. You can do it. Nobody has ever won four events before!’ I was just so tired from running earlier in the day but I wanted the challenge.”
There is no doubt what Mato’s goals have been since her days in Ghana.
“I run to win,” she said. “If I run in second or third I have to continue to encourage myself to run harder and train harder for the next race. When I came here coach would tell me to slow down and I had to re-pace myself because in my mind, I was running fast.”
“Her first race for Barton was at the University of Nebraska and her first three-quarter miles were at about a 75 second pace,” said BCCC track and field and cross country coach Parker Cowles. “That translates to a 15:35 time which is a minute under her national record.”
Cowles said Mato is a different racer today than she was a year ago.
“Lydia was responding to other runners in the New York nationals and was winning with narrow kicks in the end,” said Cowles. “In Albuquerque, even if she wasn’t running in first place, you could tell she was still controlling the race. She was making conscious, deliberate moves late in races and was approaching them with very tactical perspectives.”
Mato first heard of Barton through a teacher and a little technology but came very close to attending school in the southwest.
“When I finished high school, I got a call from one of my professors,” she said. “I had a list of five schools but I was not familiar with any of them so I went to the website. When I came to America, they grouped us into sprints and long distance.”
“Lydia and her group were very close to going to Central Arizona College but CAG backed out on a scholarship offer at the last minute,” said Cowles. “So it was a cue for us to get Lydia and some of her countrymen to come to Barton. We are so glad we took the risk because we really didn’t know what we were getting in terms of athletes. Obviously it turned out well for our program.”
Athletics and Africa go hand-in-hand but when it comes to runners, Cowles said that only a small portion of the continent is known for consistently turning out top performers.
“People think that Africans are fast and they come from a heritage of runners,” he said. “Lydia is not east African. She is not a Kenya or Ethiopia product which is where most of the great runners call home. But she is probably one of the best distance runners Ghana has ever had. “
All total over two seasons with the Cougars, Lydia has accumulated seven gold medals at the national meet. She is a two-time NJCAA Athlete of the Year in all track and field disciplines. She clocked in with a time of 18:06 in the 5000 meter run at 2014’s Holiday Inn Invitational.
Mato has raised the bar on her short term and long term goals. Improving her time, she says, is an immediate goal which will set the course for the long haul. “I was first running just to win first place,” she said. “But now I can only move forward as my running time gets better.”
Long term? One involves five rings and a torch.
“I want to end up at a Division I program and one day, hopefully, run in the Olympics.”