Making a Comeback
Oct. 24, 2008
By Larry Watts
When Wisconsin's Matt Withrow toes the line for the Big Ten men's cross country championships in Ann Arbor, Mich. Nov. 2, he won't see himself as a target despite being the defending individual champion. Nor will he be thinking about making his first run of the season.
Foremost in the fifth-year senior's mind is how the host Wolverines ended Wisconsin's outdoor track dominance in the Big Ten Championships last spring. Withrow was watching from the sidelines while recovering from a hip injury as the Badgers fell 10 points short of extending their title streak -- a dominance covering cross country, indoor track and outdoor track since the fall of 2003.
"That was a tough pill to swallow, especially since I could have done something about it had I been competing," he says. "That is the first time we have never won the Big Ten title since I've been here."
Waiting until the Big Ten Championships to make his first appearance for the Badgers is nothing new for Withrow.
"I've done that twice before and it hasn't had any effect on me," the Tinley Park, Ill. native says. "The way I run, I don't need all those races beforehand in order to get ready."
Last year, Withrow clocked 23:44.37 at Ohio State to become the fifth Badger individual champion in the last six years. He was over three seconds ahead of Minnesota freshman Hassan Mead.
"I don't know if there is a target on my back, I certainly don't feel it," he says. "My only challenge is to get out there and finish as low as possible for the team.
"I'm anxious to get going. I've seen the other guys running and I'm ready to get back at it and help the team as much as possible. We had several question marks coming into the season, but the younger guys have been racing really well."
According to Withrow, he has been feeling no ill effects from hip problems which have bothered him during his career and derailed his outdoor season following his 10,000 meter run at the Stanford Invitational last April. He clocked an NCAA and U.S. Olympic Trials "B" qualifying time of 28:26.75 at that meet. He has career bests of 13:35.32 in the 5,000 meters and 8:06.25 in the 3,000, and both of those times would easily have been tops at the Big Ten Championships last spring.
However, both of his career bests were posted as a true freshman, when he ran as an unattached runner at the University of Wisconsin. That was the same year he took a redshirt in cross county while the Badgers took second in the NCAA Championships. Later that year, he flashed his form when he was the top American finisher (60th) at the 2005 IAAF World Cross Country Championships. He qualified for the world team by taking fourth, the top finisher among non-professionals, at the USA cross country championships.
"If he had run for Wisconsin as a true freshman, they probably would have won the national title," says first-year Badger coach Mick Byrne. "But their decision not to run him has turned out to be a blessing for me."
"They had a good team already in place when my freshman class arrived here," Withrow says. "None of the freshmen came in here running extraordinarily well enough, so there was no pressing need for us. I don't know if I could have done any better than the fourth or fifth runner at the time, but I would have loved to help the team.
"From a personal standpoint, I was taking a little longer to adjust to college running demands and was not in proper shape. I was not really in shape until February and March, when I competed in the World Cross Country Championships. But the fact that I red-shirted has opened doors for other opportunities for me."
As a redshirt freshman, Withrow garnered the first of his three All-America honors by placing ninth (29:50.7) at the NCAA Championship. He followed that up by placing 24th as a sophomore and 17th last year.
"Matt is a very talented individual, but he has had a checkered career because he's had some nasty injuries to overcome," Byrne says. "I sat him down when I came here and we had a two-hour talk. He was always looking back to that freshman year and I told him he had to take this thing one day at a time, stop looking back, and concentrate on what's happening now. He has embraced that and is slowly getting back into better shape.
"What Matt needed the most was a mental break, so I'm not worried about the fact he hasn't competed in any meets this fall. We'll throw him out there at the Big Ten meet and all I'm asking him to do is stay with the pack. There's no real pressure on him to defend his title. We're down to a four-week season and I know he's capable of making big contributions down the stretch."
A history major, Withrow is no stranger to the great Wisconsin cross country tradition, which now includes nine straight Big Ten titles.
"It's just indescribable when you start thinking about all that tradition," he says. "There have been so many great names come through here and it's just cool to be part of it. A lot of former runners still live around here and travel to our meets to support us."
Withrow hasn't decided what his running future holds for him after graduation. "I'll worry about that when the time comes," he says. "I just want to get as healthy as I possibly can. There are a lot of opportunities out there for distance runners."