By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
As with any big change, it starts with a decision.
For Oshawa’s Matt Hughes, that meant a massive switch in his training and coaching situation ahead of the Summer Olympics in Rio.
This past fall, Hughes, a Paul Dwyer alum, changed coaches and landscapes when he packed up and headed to Portland, Oregon, to join the Bowerman Track Club.
“For me, it was more just like, I didn’t want to go into this year having felt like I didn’t do everything that I needed to, to get the best of myself,” Hughes says in an interview with The Oshawa Express from his new west coast home.
In 2013, after graduating from the University of Louisville, Hughes left the U.S. a two-time NCAA champion and Canada’s top-ranked amateur in the 3,000 metre steeplechase and 5,000 metre run. Hughes says he had hit a breakthrough with his performance and he went on to shatter a 28-year-old Canadian record for the steeplechase.
Hughes followed that up with a strong 2014, which saw him place fourth at the Commonwealth Games.
And despite a steeplechase gold medal at the 2015 Pan Am games in Toronto and a top 10 finish at the world championships, Hughes says he still felt like he wasn’t performing his best.
“I just felt like I hadn’t performed where I felt like I needed to the last couple years,” he says. And following discussions with friends, family and his agent, Hughes decided to make the switch.
The new environment, based out of the Nike Campus in Beaverton, has surrounded Hughes with some of North America’s best track athletes, including top American steeplechasers Evan Jager and Dan Huling.
“When you’re at my level, it’s kind of tough to do it alone. It helps, especially with distance running, to have a group of guys to train with,” Hughes says.
“On any given day, everyone is kind of feeling good and you’re…training with some of the best guys in the world, so it definitely helps in getting me to the next level.”
And that next level is the low eight-minute mark.
Since his start in the NCAA in 2008, Hughes has brought his personal best time down from 8:59 to 8:18 in 2015 for the 3,000 metre.
However, to be competitive, that time needs to be lower, Hughes says – down into the neighbourhood of eight minutes.
“I think if I can get into that range, strength-wise, you know you have a fighting chance,” he says. “I want to be competitive enough where I’m seen as a threat on the start line.”
His efforts with the club over the past couple months have been strictly strength training and it’s work Hughes hopes pays off when the Olympic trials for Team Canada get underway July 7 in Edmonton.
“I knew these guys were going to push me and just do a lot more strength work and, hopefully, I’ll have a big breakthrough and get closer to the eight-minute barrier,” he says.
While Hughes got his outdoor season underway this past weekend at an invitational at Stanford University, he says it will be the altitude training in Utah in June that will be the real prep.
From Salt Lake City, Hughes will fly to Edmonton for the trials, where he will need to place in the top three in his category to punch his ticket to Rio, which begins just under a month later. If he’s successful, he’ll be heading right back to Utah.
However, he says he will need to be careful not to hit his peak too early before the start of Rio, which actually begins only two days after his 27th birthday.
“We’re not necessarily doing a full peak for trials,” he admits. “We’ll probably take it a little easy for a few days going into trials just to make sure I can make the team without too much effort. I find that sometimes when you try and double-pea for trials and an Olympics you kind of leave yourself a little flat for the second half of the season.”
The Rio Olympics get underway Aug. 5 in Brazil.