A junior at Lincoln High, Mathabane hopes to contend for titles in the Class 6A meet again this spring. Last year, he came up just short in the 800 and 1,500 meters, finishing second.
The two guys who beat him, Central Catholic’s Taylor Morgan in the 800 and Lake Oswego’s Elijah Greer in the 1,500, probably both will be back on the starting line. And if Mathabane does the unexpected and tries to race the 3,000 at district and state, he would face Franklin state champ Bryce Burgess.
“I could be competitive for first in all three. I have confidence that I can win the 1,500,” says Mathabane, who has the state’s second-best times in the 800 (1 minute, 53.93 seconds, behind Greer), 1,500 (3:59.5, behind Burgess) and 3,000 (8:39.31, taking second to Elliot Jantzer of Phoenix in the Oregon Relays last weekend). He’ll run in the Jesuit Relays today.
For Mathabane, high school track is about building a foundation. He has big goals – national championships, college, Olympics. “I have a great support system for track and field, and it’s not a system that pushes me to a point where I wouldn’t want to do it post-collegiately,” he says.
Mathabane essentially is pacing himself, which has led to some controversy.
Working under the tutelage of private coach Julius Achon, Mathabane opted not to run prep cross country last fall, saying his personal workouts and the workouts under Lincoln coach Dave Bailey conflicted.
“There were coaching differences on how I should train, as far as degree of intensity and mileage,” says Mathabane, who ran in open cross country meets but failed to qualify for the Foot Locker nationals. “Track is my thing, a year-round process.
“Not all athletes are created equal. The coach (Bailey) thinks, from the slowest JV to the fastest varsity, we should do the same workout. I think more specialization is needed.”
Bailey, Lincoln’s cross country coach since 1968, says he has tailored workouts for one runner in the past, Mike McGrath, and he doesn’t want to do it again.
“I don’t like the notion of you’ve got this elite athlete and he doesn’t have to do what others do,” Bailey says. “It creates cleavage in the team and jeopardizes the team experience.”
Mathabane says he remains friends with Lincoln’s distance runners, but “there was that degree of ‘betrayal’ that I didn’t run for us. But they know how important track is to me and doing well in it.”
Will Mathabane run cross country for Lincoln in fall 2008?
“It all depends on talks with the cross country coach and how much leeway I can get in my training,” he says.
Bailey says: “His training will be what we’re doing. I have to be respectful of his choices, but I’m looking at a program and all kids. I’m an educator first. … He’s a great athlete and kid, and his track performances speak for themselves. The program’s there, and it’s not going to change.”
Caught in the middle of Bailey’s stance and Mathabane/his family/Achon is Suzanne Parry, a longtime Lincoln cross country assistant who picked up track and field coaching this season.
“It’s an unpleasant subject for me,” she says. “But I’m on good terms with Nathan and his family. You have to understand, in all cases, you do what’s best for athletes and combine what’s best for the program.”
Nathan’s father, Mark Mathabane, wrote the book “Kaffir Boy,” about growing up in apartheid South Africa and using tennis to get out. He has penned many other books. Nathan’s mother, Gail, has degrees from Brown, Columbia and Duke universities. Nathan’s sister, Bianca, won multiple state hurdles titles before moving on to Princeton.
It’s a high-achieving family, so Mathabane’s commitment to run with a personal coach fits into his profile. Both Nathan and Bianca worked with private track and field coach Fernando Fantroy for years. Nathan Mathabane has been working with the Ugandan-born Achon, a former 800 and 1,500 great, for three years.
Mathabane has run two 3,000s this year, at Parry’s urging, to build up his base. He’ll probably still stick with the 800 and 1,500 in big meets.
“I’m a lot stronger than I was last year, and I can hold a pace a lot better than I could,” he says. “It’s definitely helping my 1,500; in the third and fourth laps I’m able to push it more. I’ve always started fast and tried to hang on at the end.”