Sam Mattis realized the summer before his senior year at Penn’s prestigious Wharton School that he would have a difficult decision to make.
One week after beginning an internship at JPMorgan Chase, Mattis won the 2015 NCAA championship in the discus. While he considered seeing how far he could go in the sport, maybe as far as the Olympics, the Wall Street financial firm wanted him back on a full-time basis after graduation, offering “probably more money than I’ll ever make,” he said.
Eventually, Mattis called it “an easier decision for me than it might look like.”
He chose the discus.
The five years that followed were rough, with enough pitfalls that had him revisit whether he could make enough money working odd jobs while pursuing his goal. However, the true payoff came June 25 when he threw the discus 205 feet, 1 inch at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., to capture the third and final Team USA berth in the event.
“You only get a chance like this once,” Mattis, 27, said recently. “There was just no way I was going to work for a bank instead of trying to make the Olympics. That seemed crazy to me.
“The decision was mostly figuring out how I could sustain myself financially and keep going physically, rather than, ‘Should I work for a bank and not sleep and not be happy, or should I struggle financially a little bit but chase my dreams?’ And that’s an easy decision for me.”
Keeping up financially wasn’t easy. Mattis worked as a tutor and did marketing work for a pharmacy “that helped me get on my feet.” He then was employed by a laundry delivery service, and later a supplement company. He also ventured into the betting world — sports, online blackjack — “enough to get by some months, and have a little extra money some other months if I got lucky,” he said.
However, it was more of a struggle than not. Usually there was money at the end of the month to pay his expenses, but the absence of a world championship in 2018 left Mattis in a precarious spot going into the 2019 U.S. championships.
“There wasn’t a lot of funding from 2018 into 2019, so going into that year’s championships, if I didn’t win, I was probably going to have to rethink if I could keep going with track,” he said. “That was definitely a really tough year leading up to that. In fact, 2016 to 2019 was really rough financially.”
But Mattis won the 2019 USA outdoor championship with a throw of 218-9 to qualify for the world championships in Doha, Qatar, where he placed ninth. The pandemic limited opportunities to compete in 2020, and he relied on unemployment for a time. But making the Olympic team meant “a little bit smoother sailing.”
Originally from East Brunswick, N.J., Mattis lives in Fleetwood, Pa., near the Garage Strength Performance Center where he trains. He said his father, Marlon, who threw the shot put and hammer at William & Mary, never pushed him toward track but was a huge influence, coaching him through high school and much of college.
In addition to juggling his finances, Mattis needed to persevere through injuries to reach his Olympic dream. He said he remained healthy through much of the pandemic year. But one day late in 2020, “I stood up, and I couldn’t walk.”
“I had been struggling a lot with injuries for months, specifically my back just kind of getting thrown out,” he said. “So I had no real idea of what would happen at Olympic trials. I knew I was in shape enough that I could make the team, but I would have to perform well and get a little lucky. I didn’t think I performed that well, but it was enough so I can’t be too mad. But it was definitely a rocky road getting there.”
Mattis fell short in his bid to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games, blaming “nerves, some bad weather, and some bad mental prep, being 22.” But it did teach him about what it took to be more successful in big meets in the years ahead.
“I just think I’m better at handling the sort of pressure that comes with Olympic trials or with a national meet,” he said. “I know that all I can do is my best, and I have to stay inside myself and just push myself to do what I’m capable of and not worry about what other people are doing too much because if I’m able to do what I know I can, I’ll have a spot on the team.”
Mattis is the first Penn athlete to compete for the U.S. Olympic track team since Fred Samara in the 1976 decathlon. Hurdler Michael Aguilor was the most recent Penn Olympian, running for Belize in 2004.
No fans will be allowed to watch the track and field competition, but it’s nothing new for Mattis, who said most track meets “aren’t super well-attended.”
“It’s really cool at Olympic trials or nationals or worlds when there’s a stadium full of people,” he said. “It’s just a different type of energy. I’m sure this is going to be weird, but it makes sense. It’s going to be a very challenging Olympics to hold, so whatever they have to do to make it as safe as possible is just what we’re going to have to deal with.”
Despite finances and injuries, Mattis has successfully negotiated the road he decided to take after graduation. He is excited for the opportunity to compete as an Olympian, and owns a deep sense of satisfaction being a part of Penn track history.
“It’s pretty neat,” he said. “Franklin Field is a super historic site and doing Penn Relays in high school and college was always really fun. So it’s kind of cool to take a piece of that with me to Tokyo.”