Matthew Maton made history last Friday. The high school senior ran the prestigious mile event at the Oregon Twilight Meet in a blazing 3 minutes 59.38 seconds—a time that was once thought impossible for a human to achieve until Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier in 1954.
Maton is only 19 years old and is just the sixth American high school runner in history to go sub-four, which makes his achievement especially remarkable. It puts him in a new class of athletes, and it surely has fans of the sport pondering the future of someone who can run at a level only reachable by a handful of humans. But what happens to teenagers like Maton who break the four-minute mile in high school, the athletic equivalent of becoming a child star? Do they burn out early or do they tend go on to lead successful running careers, complete with podium laurels and Olympic medals?
As with most teen-athlete-phenom stories, there are no definitive answers to these questions. The other five in the sub-4 club are a mixed bag. First, and perhaps most famous, there’s Jim Ryun, the first high-school athlete to average under 60 seconds a lap. After he blazed the trail in 1964, Ryun went on to represent the U.S. in three Olympics, winning the silver medal in the 1500m in Mexico City and owning the world record in that distance. Ryun eventually went on to serve as a member of Congress from 1996 to 2007. He currently mentors young runners through his Jim Ryun Running Camp.
But life for the next member of the sub-four club, Tim Danielson, didn’t pan out so well. Once he ran his 3:59.4 in 1966, Danielson never did it again. His star burned out after his freshman year of college at Brigham Young University when he dropped out of school and returned to Southern California. He tried hard to qualify for the 1968 Olympics, but failed. At that point, he was married, a new dad, and going to school at San Diego State, and his training took a hit. He started drinking and spiraled downward. He is currently serving 50 years in prison for the murder of his third wife.
Alan Webb was the third member to join the elite group with the fastest mile (3:53.43). Webb still holds the American record in the mile (3:46.91, set in 2007), and ran the 1,500 meters for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, though he was eliminated in the first round. After failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, he had a string of poor results, and suffered an Achilles tendon injury. In 2014, he left the track to compete in triathlons.
The most recent high school runner to go under four minutes, before Maton, is Lukas Verzbicas. He ran 3:59.71 four years ago, then left the University of Oregon to concentrate on triathlon with the hopes of becoming an Olympic triathlete, and was promptly hailed as the next great American in that sport. But right when he was picking up momentum as a triathlete, he was severely injured in a bicycle accident in 2012 and has struggled to regain his form.
One common trait all members of this prestigious group share is the pressure to continue performing after achieving this incredible milestone. “It’s such an exclusive club,” says Ryan Lamppa, the founder of the grassroots campaign Bring Back The Mile. “There are only six guys in like 50 years, so that means there is this pressure from the community about what’s going happen next when someone joins it.”
So what's in store for Maton?
Lamppa’s believes that the phenom's prospects are somewhat of a crapshoot. “It’s too early to tell where he will be in four or five years,” he says. “Each of us is wired differently and can or can’t handle pressures our own way.” And for talented athletes burned with high expectations, surviving the pressure is key. Lamppa maintains that it’s crucial for runners like Maton to seek out a long-term coaching or mentorin relationship—that’s what will help him bear the pressure to perform. “Look at Jim Ryun. He had that continuity of a coach in Bob Timmons who was there with him in high school and at Kansas University. I think that’s a factor. Alan Webb didn’t have that continuity. He had different coaches—in high school, at Michigan, and then at Oregon. It was a lot of change for him to undergo so early in his career.”
Ryun agrees. "He shouldn’t let any of the external pressure steal that from him. He needs to separate that. What I’ve learned from my 50 years of running is that you can’t meet everyone’s expectations. He should be excited about it, and he shouldn’t let anyone steal that from him.”
Strangely enough, Maton’s best chances of dealing with these external pressures may lie in maintaining a healthy rivalry. Fellow high-school runner Grant Fisher has run 4:02 and is on the verge of becoming the seventh member of the sub-four club. “If Fisher does it, then it won’t just be about Maton being the next American Jim Ryun,” Lamppa says. “It will be less about him [Maton] as an individual and more about how deep the Americans are getting again in this magic event, the mile.”
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