St. Paul sprinter pushed through adversity to race in Rio

Liberia's flagbearer Emmanuel Matadi
Liberia's flagbearer Emmanuel Matadi leads his delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016.
Pedro Ugarte | AFP | Getty Images

At St. Paul's Johnson Senior High School, Emmanuel Matadi was a state champion sprinter. At Minnesota State University, Mankato, he smashed records and snagged national college championships.

On Saturday, Matadi will make his Olympic debut in Rio.

He will step into the starting blocks for his native Liberia in the 100 meters. He's also competing in the 200 meters next week.

"It's a dream come true; so unbelievable to be here, competing against the best in the world," Matadi said in a phone interview from Brazil. "I think I have a good chance to make it to the finals."

The 25-year-old is one-half of the West African nation's two-member Olympic team. He hoisted the country's flag and led its small delegation during the games' opening ceremony.

"It was an amazing honor," Matadi said. "Not a lot of people get a chance to do that."

Matadi's rise to the Olympics included escaping a brutal civil war and withstanding homelessness.

Emmanuel Matadi running for MSU-Mankato.
Emmanuel Matadi running for MSU-Mankato at the NSIC Outdoor Championships in Sioux Falls, S.D. The championships took place May 8-9, 2015. During the championship Matadi won the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.45 and the 200-meter dash with a time of 20.84.
Courtesy of MSU-Mankato

He was born in 1991 in Liberia as the country was devastated by its first civil war. Matadi and his family fled in 1999 when the country was embroiled in a second conflict. They settled briefly in California before relocating to St. Paul a couple of years later.

He first tried track at Cleveland Junior High.

"I didn't like it," he admitted. "I just didn't see the point of all that running. It was just running to be running."

When an injury kept him from playing football, Matadi decided to give sprinting another try.

"I started winning and it grew on me," he said.

At Minnesota State, Matadi set records in the 100 and 200 meters indoors and outdoors and in the 4x100 relay.

He won NCAA Division II outdoor track and field championships in the 100 meters and 200 meters in 2015.

"He's the best all-around sprinter we've had in school history," said Chris Parno, an assistant track and field coach at MSU. "His work ethic is phenomenal, and he's a great leader. We had him for a short time but it was an important time."

He's the first MSU grad to participate in the Summer Olympics, Parno added.

The day Matadi committed to Mankato, his family's home in St. Paul was destroyed in a fire.

"Red Cross put us in a hotel," he said. "But then my mother had to move to Tallahassee to live with my sister. And I just stayed with friends in Minnesota."

Matadi abandoned his pursuit of a spot on the U.S. Rugby team when the Liberian Olympic team came calling earlier this year.

"The U.S. has a lot of good people and the U.S. is always in the spotlight, but Liberia is not," he said.

Matadi said he and Olympic teammate Mariam Kromah, also a U.S.-based sprinter, are the only two athletes who qualified to compete in Rio for Liberia, which has never won an Olympic medal.

Matadi won a bronze medal in 200 meters in June at the 2016 African Championships. He currently holds Liberian records in the 60, 100 and 200 meters.

His fastest time is 20.44 in the 200, but he's strongest in the 100 meters. His fastest time is 10.14.

Parno said Matadi's Olympic bid isn't just for show.

"It's not one of those random countries that have a swimmer that never swam before," Parno said. "He's actually at a level if he runs his personal best, I don't see why he wouldn't be able to make it to the semis, at least."

Matadi's optimistic about his chances too.

"I feel good, I'm ready to run. My training's going well," he said.

He's also buoyed by the outpouring support from Liberia and its large community of expats in the Twin Cities.

"It means a lot to know people care and acknowledge what you're doing," he said.

Matadi hopes to return to the Twin Cities after the games. His mother is still homeless but he's hopeful she'll find a place soon. In the meantime, Matadi is focused on his Olympic goals.

"I know as long as I do well, my family will do well," he said.

Correction (Aug. 14, 2016): An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of MSU Mankato coach Chris Parno.

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