Title quest continues for Matt Perkins
Paratriathlete's drive remains strong as he chases sixth world championship
Suddenly, in the midst of talking about his "unbelievable work ethic," she stops. "I'll tell you a funny story," she says.
It's about a recent training session with Perkins near his home in Boise, Idaho. They had just mounted their bikes and were getting set to do a series of hill climbs when the crank on the left side of Perkins' bike broke in half. Perkins, 38, an above-the-knee amputee on his left side, already had his pedal clipped to his prosthesis. He looked down in disbelief at the offending crank, says Dodson, saying, "Gosh, I really wanted to ride."
"Then about two beats later he's taking off his leg," says Dodson, a two-time world champion paratriathlete and ultra-marathoner who lost her left leg to cancer. "And I said, 'Matt, what are you doing?' He said, 'I'm just going to do hill repeats with one leg.'
'Are you kidding me?'
'Nah, I'll be fine.'
"And he did it. I couldn't believe it.
"And he joked it off," Dodson continued. "'You're overrating how much power I get out of my prosthetic.' But the balance it takes to go and climb a hill with one leg. I mean, I was floored."
To Dodson, that's the essence of Perkins. Of course he's athletic and strong and smart about what he's doing, she says, but it's his drive that took him to the top of the International Triathlon Union World Championship podium in 2006 -- just four years after his first triathlon -- and kept him on top every year through 2010.
Even now, three years removed from his fifth world title, he's ranked No. 1 in the world in his Tri-2 classification (that includes above-knee amputees), and Dodson says she wouldn't be surprised to see him win a sixth at London on Sept. 13. Though the level of competition is up significantly each year and Perkins is long past 30, she never underestimates his potential.
"He just doesn't let up," she says. "Nothing is too hard. He'll swim until he throws up. … That's just the way he is."
Angie Perkins, Matt's wife and frequent running partner, says he is the "epitome of dedication." If he needs to get faster, he figures out how. If the world's best have gotten better, he will, too.
"If he wants something, then he figures out how to make it happen," Angie says. "He just doesn't have excuses once he makes up his mind. There is really no stopping him."
"It was just a matter of figuring out how to do it," he says.
By the time he got to high school, he was wrestling, but often at a great weight disadvantage because of the absence of his leg. He was 70 pounds in the 103-pound division.
"That sort of ran out of enjoyment for a while," he says. "But that was the time I started ski racing."
On the slopes, his weight didn't matter. Perkins eventually was good enough to make the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team from 1997 to 2000, and that included a spot on the 1998 team at the Winter Paralympics in Nagano, Japan. On a deep, talented team he was able to ski in just one event, the slalom. After the first run he was 10th, about a second off a podium spot.
"So I went absurdly straight in the second run in hopes of making that second time and ended up going too straight and crashed," he says, laughing.
Four years later, he decided to do a triathlon during his summer ski training to add endurance. He did it on a whim, with no intention to do another. But after retiring from skiing, he decided to give triathlon another try in 2004 to get back into shape. He'd become too sedentary while working full time in Boise at Coyote Design, a company he and his father, Dale, founded to create and develop orthotics and prosthetics.
Perkins discovered he liked triathlon and was good at it. And with a background as an elite athlete, he knew how to prepare. When he qualified for his first ITU World Championship race in 2005, he won a bronze medal.
"After my first trip to Worlds, it was like, 'Oooh, this is pretty fun.' I guess I'll do this for a couple of years," he says.
In 2006, when he won his first world title in Lausanne, Switzerland, he says he was stunned. In 2007, determined not to be "a one-hit wonder," he repeated in Hamburg, Germany. At Vancouver in 2008 he says he was in the best shape of his life while winning title No. 3. His fourth win came at Gold Coast, Australia, in 2009.
And his fifth championship came at Budapest, Hungary, in 2010, in what he thought would be his final Worlds, a satisfying effort in which he came out of the water fifth, made up ground on the bike and then chased down David Peiffer of France on the run. That year, Perkins was selected USA Paratriathlon Athlete of the Year.
Over the course of his paratriathlon career, Perkins has had to: (A) make the transition from Olympic-distance races (1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run) to sprint distance (750-meter swim, 20K bike and 5K run) in 2010; and (B) stay a step ahead of the surge in athletes and level of competition.
With the longer Olympic distance, Perkins had more time to make up ground in cycling and running, his strongest disciplines. Now that margin has shrunk. And the sport already was on an upward arc, but once paratriathlon was accepted by the International Paralympic Committee in 2010 -- it will make its Paralympic debut in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro -- its popularity and numbers have increased significantly. There were 103 athletes at last year's Worlds. This year, there will be more than 190.
It means Perkins feels fortunate he's stayed a step ahead of younger competitors posting better times, all while he ages.
"I kept waiting for it to continue to get faster and sort of outpace me," he says. "And I was lucky enough to stay ahead of the pace for a number of years. It did continue to get faster and more competitive, but I continued to improve. Luckily I sort of ended up doing much better than I thought I'd ever do."
At 38, Perkins has to concentrate on trying to win a sixth title and then deciding each year how far he wants to go and how hard he wants to work. He considered retiring after his titles in 2008 and 2010, and actually did step away for about a year before coming back in 2012 to finish third at the World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. As he's gotten older, he says it's become harder to stay ahead of the competition.
It's also more difficult to maintain his tolerance for pain. That tolerance has allowed him to train harder than many.
"I enjoy suffering a little bit more naturally than some people might," he says.
Though he's totally committed to his spartan training regimen this summer, it's become harder to reconcile the competitor half of his personality with the other half, the one that works a demanding schedule with Coyote Design, loves fine food and wine, and doesn't want to train three to four hours a day.
To stay in the sport and make it to Rio in 2016 at age 41, he'll have to accelerate his training and competition schedule. He's noticed in recent years that if he scales back his offseason workouts, it's harder to regain his edge.
"It's that constant battle of trying to stay fit, but at the same time, the wine bar is certainly more enjoyable than the gym," he says. "And there aren't too many good foods out there on a training diet."
But it's not yet time to quit. He wants to win a sixth title and is training as hard as ever, but has no idea if he'll finish first or eighth. However, Mark Sortino, USA Paratriathlon head coach, says Perkins usually finds a way. He says Perkins' reputation is that he comes up big in big races because he knows how to peak at the right time. And he studies the course, is unflappable and can adapt to change.
"It's the classic elite athlete who, every year, has to work harder and harder as the competition continues to grow," says Sortino, who worked with Perkins at two USA Paratriathlon camps this year, at the Olympic Training Centers in Chula Vista, Calif., and Colorado Springs.
"But he also gains all that knowledge, how to train, learns about his body. … He knows how to race on the big stage better than anybody, really, for USA."
Also, says Sortino, he's respected by his peers not only for his résumé and the way he approaches big events, but also for his character. Sortino saw it at the Colorado Springs camp this year when Perkins took time to mentor a promising 16-year-old paratriathlete and fellow amputee.
For now, though, being a mentor takes a backseat to competing.
"It's a matter of seeing how fast I can continue to get, even though I'm getting older at what seems like a faster rate each year," Perkins says. "As long as I enjoy that process, who knows how long I stick around?"
Perkins cites a quote by Steve Prefontaine, the late Oregon track star, in talking about his desire to win: "Someone might beat me, but they will have to bleed to do it."
"I'm guessing as I lose my ability to force others to bleed is when I will begin to head toward the door," Perkins says.