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Samuel Matete — March, 2024
Samuel Matete is arguably the greatest athlete from Zambia in any sport. He is the 1991 World Champion Gold Medalist in the 400-meter hurdles. Sam also earned Silver Medals in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1993 and 1995 World Championships, 1996 Olympic Games and 1994 Goodwill Games. He raced to Gold Medals in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1992 World Cup, 1994 IAAF Grand Prix Final, 1994 Commonwealth Games, 1998 African Championships and three times at the Continental Cup in 1992, 1994 and 1998. At the Continental Cup in the 400-meter relay, Sam earned a Gold Medal in 1992 and a Silver Medal in 1998. The four-time Olympian carried the Zambian flag at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremonies. During Sam’s international competitions from 1990 to 1999, per Track and Field News Annual Editions, he scored 108 wins, 49 second places and 21 third places. His major wins included four times in Rome, three times in Monaco, twice each at Van Damme and London, plus victories in Stockholm, Zurich Weltklasse and Berlin. He broke 48 seconds twenty-seven times in nine different years. At Blinn (Texas) Junior College, Sam was NJCAA Gold Medalist in the 400-meter hurdles and 4x400-meter relay in 1989 and 1990. At Auburn, he was 1991 NCAA Champion at 400-meter hurdles. Additional top collegiate performances in 1991 included SEC Indoor 400-meters Silver Medal, Penn Relays Gold Medals in the 400-meter hurdles and 4x400-meter relay and SEC Outdoors 400m hurdles Gold Medal. Personal best times are: 400 meters – 44.88; 400-meter hurdles – 47.10; 800 meters – 1:52.81 and 400-meter relay – 3:02.14. His 400-meter hurdles yearly best times over eleven years are: 1990 – 47.91; 1991 – 47.10; 1992 – 47.91; 1993 – 47.60; 1994 – 47.90; 1995 – 47.52; 1996 – 47.78; 1997 – 47.84; 1998 – 48.08; 1999 – 47.91; 2000 – 48.01. Sam has stayed close to the sport as he coached at the University of New Orleans and then formed the Samuel Matete Athletics Academy in Zambia to give back to the community that helped him. He was very generous to spend nearly two hours on the telephone from Zambia for this interview.
GCR: THE BIG PICTURE It’s been over thirty years since you won the Gold Medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1991 World Championships. What did it mean in the moment on that day to be World Champion and what does it mean now when you look back over three decades?
SM First, I am very happy to be doing this interview. That day feels like yesterday. I did something that we have never seen in my country, Zambia, since our independence. Whatever I was doing, it was something new. I was making history. When I look back, I know I could have done more but, I think, it doesn’t get any better than what I did. I did the best I could, and I gave it all my best. I am always happy when I look back. I have inspired many people around the world, including in Zambia.
GCR: Just as you have inspired others, who are the athletes who inspired you when you were starting out running and becoming interested in the 400-meter hurdles?
SM When I was growing up in Africa I was inspired by Danny Harris and had dreams of running like him. I used to follow Danny Harris’ career and even dreamed of going to Iowa State where he competed in college. I did not know that one day I would be out there on the track as one of the best and competing with Danny Harris. I enjoyed the 400-meter hurdles and cannot forget the great Edwin Moses who truly inspired me. When I was going to school back in Africa, I put a picture of Edwin Moses on my wall in the room where I used to sleep. Every time I went in the room, I saw the picture and was regularly inspired by this man. I was coming from a country where there was no history of running the 400-meter hurdles. I used to make my own hurdles and emulate the way Edwin Moses was running. Fast-forward and I got a scholarship to go to America. It was something that I dreamed. To be able to see hurdles on the track at Blinn College where I went to school in Texas was a dream come true. I was able to start training on the hurdles every other day and it was truly reality to me. I enjoyed each moment.
GCR: All athletes have years that stand out compared to other years. Prior to the 1991 World Championships, you were undefeated that season and, a few weeks beforehand, ran 47.80 in Italy, 47.87 in Monaco and your personal best of 47.10 in Zurich. What led to you running so consistently fast that year and how confident were you heading into the World Championships after that 47.10 in Zurich? And what was your strategy as you were on the starting line?
SM After running 47.10 in Zurich, that was pretty much the last competition prior to the World Championships in Tokyo. Since I was unbeaten, when I went to Tokyo, I looked forward to running the rounds. It was not easy with Danny Harris, Kriss Akabusi, and Winthrop Graham. Derrick Adkins was in the race, but he was young and coming up. Kevin Young was in the picture, but he was not at his best at the time. It was a very, very tough field. The semifinal was tough for me and then it came down to the final. Danny Harris used to go out very fast. I had to plan how I was going to run the final, knowing that Danny was in a lane behind me. He used to come out very fast and catch you before you even got through the back straight. I thought through it and came up with a strategy that, when I got in the blocks, I would get out and go as fast as I could. If I got tired, I would get tired, and Danny would come and get me. So, I decided to go out fast and make him come and get me.
GCR: Can you take us through that race down the back stretch, around the final curve and on the home stretch as you won in 47.64 seconds with a great trio of athletes behind you as Winthrop Graham was second in 47.74, Kriss Akabusi third in 47.86 and Kevin Young fourth in 48.01 seconds?
SM My strategy worked out. I held off Danny. He was happy that I was in front of him. I beat everybody because I went out very fast. Coming into the eighth hurdle, I stutter-stepped a little bit. But when I came off, I realized I was alone. I thought, ‘I am very strong. You come and get me.’ Winthrop Graham was on the outside and working very hard to catch me. I saw him closing in on me. I used my last strength to get to the finish and that is how I got the first ever Gold Medal for my country of Zambia.
GCR: What was it like to get the Zambian flag and take it around the track for a victory lap – the first time ever and it hasn’t been done since?
SM Since this was something that had never been done before in the history of athletics in Zambia, when I finished, I saw one of my coaches throw our country’s flag on the track. I picked it up and tried to do a victory lap. But I had given it all I had in the race, and I couldn’t do a whole victory lap. I tried and couldn’t because I was all out. But it was fun with my joy and everybody who was there to witness the history of what had happened to me. It was wonderful and is something that is there in memory lane. It is fun to look back and remember what I did.
GCR: In the big picture, as the years went by and you earned Silver Medals in the 1993 and 1995 World Championships and 1996 Olympics and represented Zambia in four Olympics, what does it mean to be recognized as Zambia’s most outstanding athlete, not only in track and field, but in all sports and to be an inspiration to children and teenagers that they can possibly do great things too?
SM When you are the best, you always want to be the best and continue being the best. At the same time, we must remember that there are young athletes looking up to us and they also want to be the best. Going into 1992, Kevin Young was very determined to make sure that he could take over in the years to come. So were Derrick and Akabusi and Stephane Diagana, who came in later. The biggest challenge over the years is to stay on top. In the 1992 Olympic Games, I was disqualified in the semifinals. Then I went on to get a Silver Medal in the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. Then, two years later, I got the Silver Medal in the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg when Derrick Adkins got the Gold Medal. So, it’s not easy to go out there and win, win, win, win. As the saying goes, you lose some and you win some. I did the best I could to maintain my form throughout the years when I was running. In the 1996 Olympic Games, I did the best I could, but Derrick got me again and I got a Silver Medal. If we look at so many years of running, I was consistent, but there were young athletes coming up who were very energetic and took over. When I look back, I can cherish this because I did the best I could.
GCR: I interviewed Derrick Adkins last year and we spoke about your great competitions. During the 1994, 1995 and 1996 seasons, you raced Derrick over thirty times, of course, with other competitors on the track. In those races, Adkins held a slight edge by one victory in one of track and field’s greatest mid-1990s rivalries. What was it like going head-to-head with such a strong competitor so often and with many close finishes as you pushed each other to the limits?
SM That is the joy of sport. We get to realize that we will meet tough opponents. We must remember to push through the race and push ourselves to the limit. Other athletes like Derrick, who was a great athlete, are always in good form. We used to go at it. When I was in better form, I got him. When he was in better form, he got me. I would walk up to the starting line and wonder what it was going to be on that day. I would try one strategy and Derrick might finish in front of me. I would try another strategy and I might get him. But it was always that zigzag where Derrick would win, and I would win. At the end of the day, you are looking at two great athletes who did their best at the time and gave it all. We are both winners. Derrick was young at the time, very strong and with great talent. We cannot take anything away from him. He was a great athlete and I have much respect for him. I gave him a very good time. He can look back and say, ‘Samuel gave me a tough time.’ I can look back and say, ‘Derrick gave me a tough time.’ In the end, we both had some good times from what we did together.
GCR: Over your career, there were so many strong competitors including Kevin Young, Danny Harris, Derrick Adkins, Winthrop Graham, Stephane Diagana, Kriss Akabusi, Calvin Davis, Sven Nylander and Bryan Bronson. Some were there in the beginning of your career, some toward the middle and others in the latter years. Did you keep in mind their strengths and weaknesses as you prepared to race and how much did all of you push each other to be your absolute best since all of you had a strategy to win and only one man could come out on top?
SM Again, that is what makes track competitions very exciting. Each one of us was unique. No one was the same. We had strengths and we had weaknesses. And sometimes Mother Nature affected us. I remember one time we were running in the rain. For the first time, Winthrop Graham beat all of us. I don’t know what he had as his strategy, but he raced very well in the rain. Some of us, like me, did very badly. All of us did the best we could using different strategies and learning from others what strategies they were using to ensure they could do their best to win. These were all great athletes and we learned from each other. There was a lot to learn from everybody. We can all look back now and know we had some great times together.
GCR: Though many fans focus on the biggest meets of the season, while you were aiming to peak for the top meets, you also were very consistent while running fifteen to twenty meets per season, breaking 48 seconds on twenty-seven occasions in nine of ten years during your career. What did you do to be consistently close to peak form for a period of several months each season that could stretch from May through September?
SM We all prepared ourselves for the big meets – the World Championships, the Olympics, and the African Championships. We all prepared for the big meets but, prior to that, we tested each other to see who was ready and who was not ready. By competing against each other, it prepared us psychologically so we could make sure that, when we got to the championships, we knew, ‘I’m going to be meeting Derrick in the final’ or ‘I’ll be meeting Stephane in the final’ and so on. We were strategically prepared so that we would be careful in the rounds and get to the final with the big guys. Knowing I had raced with them gave me more ease because I knew Derrick’s strengths, I knew Akabusi’s strengths, and I knew all the other guys’ strengths. What I needed to do was to stay healthy and make it to the final to race them. So, this was all extremely exciting and interesting.
GCR: Though there wasn’t a great Zambian hurdler before you, since two Africans had won Olympic Medals in the 400-meter hurdles, John Akii-Bua of Uganda with Gold in 1972 and Amadou Dia Ba of Senegal with Silver in 1988, did these men inspire you?
SM There is no doubt. If we go back through African track history, there is John Akii-Bua of Uganda. I met him in 1987 when the African Games were held in Nairobi, Kenya. I went up to him and was very, very inspired. Prior to that, I had seen his pictures. He was the first African who opened the door for all of us young athletes. When I met him at the African Games, he watched me running and I talked to him afterward. He told me, ‘You are going to be a great athlete.’ I don’t know what he saw in my, but that is what he told me. At the time, it didn’t have much meaning for me, but it came out to be true. I watched Amadou Dia Ba run in the 1988 Olympic Games. I thought he was one of the greatest athletes Africa had ever produced when he got the Silver Medal in those Olympic Games. He was very inspiring. He was from west Africa and was a great athlete along with John Akii-Bua. We didn’t have a large number of top athletes but had two of the greatest athletes that all of us in Africa looked up to. The American athletes I looked up to included Edwin Moses, Kevin Young and Danny Harris. Like I said, I dreamed of getting a scholarship to Iowa State where Danny was. I even talked to the Iowa State coach, but it didn’t happen. These are great memories to look back on and talk about and are very inspiring.
GCR: The 400-meter hurdles is currently experiencing amazing competition and fast times as, on the men’s side Karsten Warholm at 45.94 seconds, Rai Benjamin at 46.17 and Alison Dos Santos at 46.29 are the three fastest in history while, on the women’s side, Sydney McLaughlin with a ridiculously fast 50.68, Femke Bol at 51.45 and Dalilah Muhammad at 51.58 are the three quickest ever. Can you believe how fast men and women are running and, since that we have the three fastest ever for both genders, is this pushing them all to new heights?
SM We are talking about two totally different generations. I was interviewed right before Karsten Warholm raced in the Tokyo Olympics. I was asked what I thought about his race with Rai Benjamin and who I thought would win. I told them that Karsten Warholm had set the bar very high and, coming into the Games, we expected him to meet or break that bar. Anything short of that and Rai Benjamin would win. Rai Benjamin was the favorite in many people’s eyes, but I thought Karsten Warholm would win. Karsten did go on to win and break the World Record. If we look at his time, 45.94 seconds, there are a great number of factors so we can’t compare it to my generation. There are designs of the track and shoes, but guys today are truly fortunate to have access to technology and things that can help them to run faster. It is the same with the women who are pushing it to another level. There are running fifty point and may soon run forty-nine point. We can’t compare because this generation is totally different from mine.
GCR: You have worked with and coached athletes, are the founder of Samuel Matete Athletics Academy, and have helped with a fundraising fun run for a girl’s secondary school. How rewarding is it to coach and mentor youth and what is the outlook for Zambia producing more athletes who can compete on the world stage?
SM I was brought up in this country and came from a very humble background in a middle-income family. It was not easy to wake up and do what I had to do. But I always tell people that I made the best out of what I saw around here. I always felt indebted to my community. Many youths who saw me run at the top or know of me for my running at the world level think that I am special. I remember going to a school in Zimbabwe and one of the kids asked, ‘You are a World Champion. We’re you born special? Are you so much more special than all of us?’ Those are some of the issues I addressed. I let them know that I am not special and, in fact, these kids are special because they are going to special schools that are very expensive. I let them know that they can achieve whatever they want if they put their minds to it. Success doesn’t come because someone is from a well-to-do family, but I told them they could do what they wanted if they believed they could do it. I let the children know that they don’t need to be like Samuel to be the best. I would tell them that they could even come from the worst place, but they need to have good people around them to mentor them and help them set goals. So, I feel that I made it, and I can influence these young people’s lives. That is what I am doing at schools. It has been a bit tough. But thank God that we have had some good athletes at the junior level who have graduated to the senior level, and we should be seeing them at the African Games, Olympic Games and World Championships. This will transform their lives and they can inspire youths in their generation. The athletes I am coaching are immensely proud to have me as their coach. For me to be around them is quite a fortune for them. I always tell them, ‘There is only one Samuel Matete out there. Either you are with me or not.’ I let them know that they are privileged, and I share my dream for them. I share what I went through so they can be great as well. We don’t have great facilities but where I came from there were no facilities. But I am making a difference in young athletes.
GCR: FORMATIVE YEARS. EARLY RUNNING AND COLLEGIATE COMPETITION Everyone starts somewhere and in what sports did you take part as a youth? Were you playing soccer or running or doing other activities that kept you fit as a youth and teenager?
SM I come from a very sporty family. My father was a soccer player. My brothers were all playing soccer. One brother was a great basketball player. He was also a rugby player and played volleyball. What I saw when I was growing up was mostly soccer. We lived in a compound. We could also do other things in the bush like gardening. Most of my childhood friends played soccer with me and the last thing they would have thought to see me doing was running. I asked one of my old friends, ‘Did you ever imagine you would ever see me running and being n a great athlete?’ And he didn’t, but he said, ‘One thing I remember is, whenever we played soccer, you were very, very fast.’ I asked my mother if she imagined her son would do something so great. My mother will tell people, ‘Each time I sent Samuel to buy something he would run. Everything I had him do, he would run. If I gave him some work to do, he would do extra and still want to do more.’ For the most part we played soccer, and I was known for soccer.
GCR: How did you start running and get introduced to the sport of track and field?
SM When I got to secondary school, I was at a school that had track and field as a sport. I started out and was introduced to running. Each time I ran, I beat everybody. I enjoyed running. One of my friends told me that I needed to go to his running club. He took me there and that is where I found one of the coaches was a top athlete and an Olympian who had gone to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He saw me and, during the warmup toward the end of the lap, he said to all the guys, ‘I am going to sprint. Do all you can to catch me.’ He sprinted and realized I was right there with him. He increased his speed, and I was still right there. When we finished, he looked at me and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Kitwe. He told me that I was very fast. He became interested in me and told me, ‘Come to practice tomorrow.’ I didn’t go. I went to play basketball, which I enjoyed. He started looking for me. He told his wife, ‘This is a very fast kid I’m looking for and I can’t find him.’ One of his daughters was a friend of my niece and knew where I lived. She said, ‘He is my friend’s uncle.’ Then he found me and, out of fear, I started going to track practice. He started to train me and, somehow, he saw a lot of potential in me.
GCR: Were you running exclusively on dirt tracks and how did you get started racing?
SM There were no synthetic tracks. Synthetic tracks just started being built in Zambia five or ten years ago. Where I come from, we would see synthetic tracks on television and in pictures. We wondered what kind of tracks they were because they looked nice. Everything we ran on was either a dirt track or grass.
GCR: Can you tell us about your flat 400-meter racing and how you ran your first 400-meter hurdles in Harare, Zimbabwe where you clocked 54.04 seconds and relate some highlights of that hurdle race?
SM At the time, I was running barefoot and running the 400 meters. My coach had me try the 200 meters, but mostly it was all 400 meters. When I saw the picture of Edwin Moses, I asked my coach, ‘Is this a race?’ He told me that there was a race like that. I wanted to run it but there were no races of 400-meter hurdles in my country. Even when my coach was training me, he couldn’t prepare me for hurdles because they were nonexistent. One day I met a team prior to the African Games when we were in Zimbabwe for a triangular championship meet. I was there as an alternate in the four by four-hundred-meter relay. We went to the track for practice, and I saw hurdles. I said to my coach, ‘I would like to try the hurdles. I’ve always dreamed of this, and it is what I am looking for.’ He said, ‘No, Samuel. Are you crazy? You can’t do this. You haven’t been practicing.’ I said, ‘Let me try.’ At some point, he said, ‘Okay, you will try tomorrow.’ During the competition, I ran 54.04 and they were all shocked.
GCR: What were you doing in terms of training that helped you to improve to 51.08 seconds at the 1987 African Games in Nairobi, Kenya? Did you have hurdles for training or were you training as a 400-meter runner and only running over hurdles in your races?
SM I never got to train over hurdles. I went back to what I was doing. I used some bamboo sticks to train over. My best time in the 400 meter was 47.60 on a dirt track running barefoot. That allowed me to run better. When I improved from 54.04 to 51.08 seconds, it meant a lot and many coaches were interested in me.
GCR: How fortunate was it for you to meet Ron Davis, former San Jose State distance runner who was a sports missionary in five African countries, and how he connected you with Coach Steve Silvey of Blinn Junior College in Texas?
SM After that 1987 African Games there was the 1988 Olympics and we had the 1988 African Athletics Championship in Annaba, Algeria. Ron Davis was the coach for the Mauritius team. I ran 45.8 in the 400 meters and fifty point in the 400-meter hurdles. While I was there, we got in contact. He said I was a great athlete and he wanted to help me to get a scholarship. We talked and he had details about Coach Steve Silvey at Blinn Junior College. Steve was very much interested in me, and we worked out things eventually for me to leave Zambia in January of 1989.
GCR: When you arrived in the USA, how was it to train on a synthetic track at Blinn Junior College with hurdles? Was that an amazingly great transformation for you?
SM It was an unexplainable situation and circumstances. When I arrived, it was night. During the next day, I walked to the track, and I saw all these hurdles. I said to Coach Silvey ‘There are so many hurdles here.’ And he said, ‘Now, the sky is the limit.’ I was looking at the hurdles and couldn’t wait to start running over them. But the coach did not start the hurdle training for me right away. He let me get used to indoor running and the synthetic track. I ran the 400 meters and four by 400-meter relay. Then one day he said, ‘Let’s try hurdles.’ I picked them up from there.
GCR: It must have been exciting running for a strong team as at both the 1989 and 1990 NJCAA Championships at Odessa College in Texas, Blinn College won the team championship as you were two-time 400-meter hurdles and 4x400 meter relay champion. How much fun was it to be part of such a strong team?
SM Steve Silvey was a particularly good coach, and he led the school team to win almost every year. To be part of the winning prepared me mentally and physically to ensure that after that, when I went to Europe to run in 1991, I went to 49 seconds and 48 seconds and, eventually, 47 seconds. Coach told me after I beat Danny Harris, ‘You’ve just beaten Danny Harris, one of the best in the world. I think you can be the world champion.’ I said, ‘Whoa, I just want to be the best that I can be.’ So, there was so much positivity that came out of me being at Blinn. There was a lot that I learned. When I look back, that is exactly what every athlete needs – to be in an environment that stimulates him. It can also provide an opportunity for education to pursue a career in sport like I was doing. There was everything I needed – my coach, the facilities, and the competition almost every week. The NCAA prepared me both mentally and physically to ensure that, going into every race, I would be the best that I could be.
GCR: When you went to Europe in 1990, how amazing was it to come from running on dirt tracks with no hurdles two years earlier to racing behind Danny Harris at Weltklasse and Von Damme and then beating him at the 1990 Grand Prix in Athens, Greece by two hundredths of a second with a 47.91 versus his 47.93 and how did that race play out?
SM I can see it and hear it like the race was yesterday. I had heard about Danny Harris when I was in Africa. Then to find myself in the next lane to Danny Harris was something that I can’t explain, but it was the reality. I remember Danny Harris did not expect it. He came there to win. The way I beat him was in the final homestretch. He was leading throughout, even after the last hurdle. Then I came up after the last hurdle and I won the race. I believe he was in the lane inside of me. He loved to be on the inside so, when he takes off, he knows he is leading. It was one heckuva race. I knew that when I was running against Danny that I was going to have to really do some running. When I called my coach, he had already heard about it. ‘Congratulations! You beat Danny and he is a tough guy.’ I said, ‘I know coach, but I beat him.’ That 47.91 was my personal best time, which was particularly good. After that I realized how good I was. That was when my coach said, ‘You know, Samuel, that you can win the World Championships?’ I told him I did but that I was trying to be the best that I could. I had beaten Danny but was looking forward to winning more big races.
GCR: You wrapped up at Blinn College and went to Auburn in 1991. How was your transition in a World Championships year to a new school and Coach Mel Rosen and what did he do to build on what Coach Silvey did to take you to a higher level?
SM The great part of it is that Coach Silvey was a good friend with high respect for Coach Mel Rosen. Coach Rosen was a great coach. I transferred from one great coach to another great coach. Training was a little bit different, but everything tended to be good. It was the best choice because I went to a coach who was very experienced, and he was able to take me where Coach Silvey left me and build on that.
GCR: In 1991 at the SEC indoors you raced the 400 meters and finished in second place. Outdoors you were the Penn Relays 400m hurdles and four by 400-meter relay champion and the SEC 400-meter hurdles champion. Then you capped off your collegiate season winning the NCAA 400 meter hurdles at Oregon with Derrick Adkins in second place, 49.12 to 49.75 seconds. What was it like stepping up to the biggest collegiate stage and racing undefeated?
SM Again, this is what makes athletics such sporting excellence. We are put through these competitions and some of them are tough. When we are victorious, we become so strong. The NCAA prepares us to be the best. If we can be the best in the NCAA, then we can be the best in the world. I was subjected to that competition and that is why in America there has been great preparation in the NCAA for the aftermath.
GCR: ELITE TRACK AND FIELD COMPETITION We have already discussed your 1991 season and the great culmination in you winning the World Championship. I’m sure that set the stage for high hopes in the 1992 Olympic year. How disappointing was it to have some hamstring issues and for your Olympic dreams to not play out like you would have hoped?
SM Coming into 1992, I was looking forward to building on what I did in 1991. But every year has its challenges. That year I was late in picking up my speed and was late in terms of where I wanted to be at certain times of the year to ensure I was running consistently and running good times. I was able to maintain my form and was hoping that, by the time the Olympic Games came, that I would be in good enough shape to get a medal. Unfortunately, one day when I was training, I felt something in my hamstring. I slowed down but then I thought that I would be fine. I thought that I should not do too much hard work, but just relax. Of course, the moment you have an injury at the Olympic Games it puts you in a very awkward situation. I managed to get through my qualifying heat to the semifinal. In the semifinal race I hit a hurdle in the lane next to me and I was disqualified. That was the end of my dream at those Olympic Games.
GCR: Your season didn’t end as you recovered to run some good times and, at the World Cup in Havana Cuba, won Gold Medals in the 400-meter hurdles and 4x400 meter relay. What was it like racing in Cuba as the country was very closed due to the Fidel Castro regime? And did you get to do much sightseeing?
SM That was my first time going to Cuba and we didn’t expect much. It was a particularly good experience and opportunity. It was interesting in Cuba, but we didn’t get to see much because Cuba was Cuba! We were confined to the hotel and to the track where we went to train. The training facility was very good and there was good competition. For Africa to be victorious in the 4x400-meter relay was unusual as we did very well.
GCR: The next year at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart Germany you came into the competition in very strong shape, as you had beaten Kevin Young at London, Weltklasse and Monaco. What was that race like as Kevin was in top form and ran a great race to win handily in 47.18, while there was a three-way battle for the remaining two medals with you racing 47.60 to barely beat Winthrop Graham in 47.62 and Stephane Diagana 47.64?
SM The fact is that Kevin Young was very strong. The two years of 1992 and 1993 were when he was in very top form. Going into the World Championships, he was the favorite. We felt that the medals would come from the four of us – Winthrop Graham, Kevin Young, Stephane Diagana, and me. Kevin was in a different class at that time and was well ahead in the race. I was the weakest at the time. The Silver Medal and the Bronze Medal rested on the three of us. Stephane was running a very good race and so was Winthrop as we were coming into the home stretch. For me, I am always very strong in the home stretch. I ran very fast down the home stretch and clipped them at the finish. That is how I managed to get the Silver Medal. Winthrop Graham got the Bronze Medal and Stephane Diagana put up a good performance. It was one of the best races and we can’t take anything away from Kevin. He was the man at that time. That is the joy of sport. Like I say, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
GCR: In 1994 there was not a major global championship, but you raced strong as you broke 48 seconds five times, and you nipped Derrick Adkins by three hundredths of a second to win the 1994 Grand Prix Final. Was that a satisfying year?
SM It was a good year and, as you can see by the history of athletics in the United States of America, they have always produced some of the best in the world. The great program in the NCAA is why we see great athletes coming up every year. That year Derrick Adkins came out very strong and was a very promising future athlete. He gave me a good challenge and I gave him very good competition. If it was time for Derrick to win, he did his best just as I did as well.
GCR: The next year when you were getting ready for the World Championships, Stephane Diagana ran his personal best of 47.37 seconds to beat Derrick Adkins in 47.54 and you in 47.80 at Lausanne, Switzerland. What was your thought process going into Worlds now that Diagana had improved and showed that he could also race for the win?
SM That is what is interesting about track. Every time you are winning, and you are running very fast, there is always somebody in the back watching you. At the time, it was Diagana. He truly got the best of Derrick and me in Lausanne and now was the time when he had gotten up to where we were. There was a time when we weren’t worried about him but now I knew that, if I made any mistakes, Diagana would come through. He did that in the 1997 World Championships when he ran very strong, won the race and was the man. He was young in 1995 and came out very strong. He was one of the best that France had ever produced.
GCR: At the 1995 World Championships you had a great starting position as you were in lane three with Adkins in lane four and Diagana in lane six to your outside where you could see them both. What was that race like as Derrick was out very strong, and you almost closed to catch him as he got you barely by 47.98 seconds to 48.03 with Diagana a meter behind you in 48.14. Even though you didn’t win, was that a thrilling race since you had both of them in your sights?
SM Can you imagine running in that race as Derrick and Diagana were running well, and Derrick was at his best? The time was slow, but Derrick ran a heckuva race. I pushed harder and harder and harder but then the race was over. Derrick had it and he was the best on that day. He got the Gold Medal while I was second and Diagana was third.
GCR: I was reviewing some of the races after Worlds and there was unbelievable competition. Derrick nipped you at Weltklasse 47.65 to 47.67. Then at Cologne Danny Harris ran 47.63 to beat you by two meters as you raced 47.86. Finally, at Van Damme you raced a superfast 47.52 to squeeze by Harris in 47.56 with Adkins third in 47.78. Was that competition amazing to close out the season?
SM I remember that race when I beat Danny in Belgium at the Van Damme Classic. I wasn’t expecting to beat him but, somehow, I ran an outstanding race and I beat him. These are some of the best athletes who ever ran. Danny Harris, Derrick Adkins, and Stephane Diagana were incredibly good athletes. We were exchanging positions. That is why it was especially important to plan my strategy. Any mistake and Danny would win. Any mistake and Derrick would win. Any mistake and Diagana would win. I knew what I was up against, so I had to plan and strategize carefully to get the best out of those guys.
GCR: In 1996 you faced most of the same athletes with the USA’s Calvin Davis added to the mix. Since you had beat Derrick Adkins four times before the Olympics at Rio, Osaka, Bratislava, Lausanne while he topped you once at Paris, were you feeling confident? And did a slow semifinal that put you in lane one for the final hurt your chance to win as Derrick beat you 47.54 to 47.78?
SM During the semifinal I messed it up. I was slowing down so I could have it easy going into the final. Another athlete was closing fast, and I ended up qualifying for the final amongst the fastest losers. It disadvantaged me because I would either get lane eight or lane one and I ended up getting lane one. I did feel that lane one was better than lane eight. I tried my best to win but, of course, Derick had an advantage since he was in lane five. I had to make up a lot of ground on the last curve when I knew I had Derrick in front of me.
GCR: It seems the next year that you weren’t in quite the shape you had been for several years and that 1996 was your last truly super year. At the 1997 World Championships, when Stephane Diagana won you finished fifth in 48.11 as three broke 48 seconds. What was happening that year when you slipped a bit behind your top competitors?
SM In 1996, prior to the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, I had a knee problem with my meniscus. Even when I was warming up, it was quite painful. I ran with the injury because I didn’t want to go to the doctor for surgery. A doctor told me that I could have the surgery after the season. So, prior to the warmup I was in such pain. The good thing was that, when I did a good warmup, the pain would subside. So that is how I was able to run the Olympic Games. After the Olympics, I went to Doctor Andrews, and he did arthroscopic surgery. Then I lost about a month and was that far behind starting my training for the 1997 competitions. By the time my knee was healed, I had to get over it psychologically. That took some time and, coming into 1997, I was sluggish. I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted. When I went to the World Championships, I couldn’t perform the way I wanted to. I was still learning on the new leg after surgery. That is why I slowed down in 1997. I still went to the final but was fifth in the final.
GCR: The trend continued in 1998 as your wins included the Osaka Grand Prix in 48.32, the Dakar African Championships in Senegal in 48.56, the IAAF World Cup in South Africa in 48.08 and in Tokyo in 48.34. How was it mentally to be winning races but to be over a half second slower? Were you wondering if you could get back to where you were?
SM When you start running those times like I was in the forty-eight seconds after having been in the forty-seven seconds, there is this urge to want to get back to your normal self. But, of course, my body was not allowing me. It took some time after that surgery for my body to get back to where I wanted it to be. I could push and push and push, but my body could only respond so much. It was frustrating, but there was a point where I had to realize that, even though my body wasn’t responding like I wanted, I could keep on hoping it would come through. So, 1997 and 1998 were very tough.
GCR: In 1999, in May you won both the Osaka Grand Prix in 47.91 and Doha Grand Prix in 48.29. But that year you raced more slowly often, with a dozen meets in the high 48s and low 49s. At the 1999 World Championships you won your heat in 48.90 before finishing sixth in your semifinal in 49.28 to be eliminated. Was it emotionally tough to not make the final at Worlds and was that a year where you started realizing that your best years were behind you?
SM That was a year when my age started kicking in and I just went for whatever I could. It was one of those things where, after fighting extremely hard to run in the forty-sevens, my body would not respond. It did respond when I didn’t expect it when I won that Grand Prix race in Osaka.
GCR: In 2000, leading up to the Olympics, you seemed to rebound and get on track with a 48.38 in Berlin a few weeks before the Olympics and a 48.01 in Yokohama 15 days before Olympics. Did you have some hope that you could make the finals in Sydney, Australia at the Olympics?
SM At that time, I was fully recovered from that injury, both mentally and physically and I felt I could just go out and run with nothing to worry about. Of course, my age was kicking in even more. I was tired and ready to move onto something else.
GCR: At the 2000 Olympics you got out of your heat but not out of your semifinal. Was it more difficult running rounds of heats, semis, and finals than when you were younger?
SM To compare, let’s go back to 1991. That year I ran about twenty-five races prior to the World Championships. With the rounds, there were twenty-seven races for me before the World Championships final. That is how much excitement there was when I was young and what my body could do. In later years, the body doesn’t respond.
GCR: In your fourth and final Olympics in 2000, you wear the Zambian flag-bearer. How exciting was this and can you describe your emotions as you entered the stadium, and your country was announced?
SM It was very exciting. The whole nation of Zambia recognized me at that time. Of course, they had high hopes, but I knew the Sydney Olympics would be tough for me. I was not in the top shape I wanted to be in. I put up a good first round but, in the second round didn’t have any energy left. It was good to be a part of that last Games.
GCR: In 2001 you ran three meets in 49.82, 50.64, 50.33. Did you test yourself that year and then decide that it was time to retire from competitive racing?
SM That’s right exactly. It just wasn’t there anymore. I tried it and I knew that, if I couldn’t run any better, then it was my time to exit. So that was my last year.
GCR: WRAPUP AND FINAL THOUGHTS Earlier you mentioned that you gave it your all but, when you look back on your running career, is there anything you would have changed, done differently or focused on that may have helped you to set a World Record or win some of those close competitions? Or are you satisfied that you did all you could, and you are pleased with the outcomes?
SM What is so great about life is that we may have done something that we now think is stupid and we ask ourselves, ‘What was I thinking?’ Yes, indeed, there is always a time when I tell myself that I know I could have done better and run some faster times if only I did this or that. But, when I look back at what I did, I was able to do the best that I could. I lost some and won some and I can’t go back and change. I thank the Lord. What he gave me, I will take home with me.
GCR: When you retired from running, you were still a young man in your early thirties. What was your thought process of what you would do next? Did you want to go back to your home village and be with your family? How did you transition to not being a professional athlete?
SM My plan was to live in America. When you go through this process, you always get used to it and think life will be the same. That is why any time after you retire there is a transition and sometimes people fail to transition well. We go from the fast lane to a normal lane. So, getting back from the fast lane is a change from running fast to moving slow. It can be difficult and require some psychological transition into a new stage in life. I was trying to figure out if I should go to work or back to school. It is a huge transition for most athletes, and I faced that. Because I did not prepare well for the next transition and I was in a foreign land, I started to wonder what to do. I did have a great friend of mine, Mark Everett, who was my training partner. We talked about how it would take some time to transition and to settle down. So, many things were on my mind. I thought that I would go back home and help Zambian athletics in a way. There were all these things in my mind. Then Ron Davis called me and asked me to help him in coaching at the University of New Orleans. I coached there a little bit. Next, Coach Davis was relocating and one day I woke up and decided to go back to Zambia. Of course, there was a lot to do, a lot to change and a lot to give back in Zambia. I decided to stay, and I formed the Samuel Matete Athletics Academy to give back to the community that helped me. My dream is that one day we will see another athlete make a difference in the community with my help just like I did when I was helped. That’s the road I took. I am also coaching at one of the private schools that has sports. If there are sports, I am always willing to help. That is how I found myself in Zambia. I still communicate with my friend, Mark Everett, and he is always telling me to come back. Believe me, several times I have thought about going back to America and working in the track and field area with coaching. I do need to visit America to see what Mark is doing and to see if I can help. But Zambia needs me very much. I am torn between the two but, for now, I am settled here in Zambia.
GCR: Since you mentioned Mark Everett, let’s talk about your post-collegiate training partners and coaching. Can you tell us about both while you were a top professional athlete?
SM After I left Auburn, when I was in Europe, I met Mark Everett. He was talking to my manager about possibly managing him. We got together and talked a bit. He was telling me how he just ran the 800 meters at the USA Olympic Trials in 1:43. He was also an incredibly good 400-meter runner who ran 44.53. We were talking one day and started staying together as we travelled and competed. Our friendship kicked in and we started training together. After the season I told him, ‘I really enjoyed your training. Why don’t we get together and train during the next season?’ From then on, Mark Everett was my training partner, and I enjoyed every bit of it. Since he was an 800-meter and 400-meter runner and I was a 400-meter and 400-meter hurdle runner, that combination was simply great. There was no other coach for me. Mark was the one who was setting up the workouts. He was my training partner and coach. He was good at it.
GCR: When you were training together, what was the focus of your training and how much did training with Mark help you?
SM For the most part, I stopped training over the hurdles because the training we were doing was enough for me. We were training with a combination of 400-meter training and 800-meter training. It was perfect for me, and I loved it. That didn’t affect me in a bad way. It made me a better athlete. Training with Mark was always great because he was a tough competitor and a tough training partner. In every bit of the training, he would always beat me. I was always looking forward to catching up with him. In that process, I became very, very good in the 400-meter hurdles.
GCR: What are you doing now for health and fitness?
SM It has always been key for me in my life to keep fit and healthy. That is a part of my life. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do spinning classes for forty-five minutes. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I do weight training. I don’t do heavy lifting for big muscles. I do more strength endurance training. In that way, I get cardio and strength and get myself going. When you called today, I had just come home from the gym, was resting for a few minutes, and the phone rang.
GCR: When someone achieves like you did, winning a Gold and Silver Medals on the world stage, there is often the chance to meet celebrities and world leaders. Who are some that you have met and what are your memories of those meetings?
SM I have met the IAAF President, the late Lamine Diack. I have met some famous Zambian musicians. Ron and I met some high-profile men at the U.S. Embassy in Zambia. I have met the President of Zambia, the Vice-President of Zambia, and Ministers.
GCR: When you are giving speeches or advice and you sum up in a minute or two the major lessons you have learned from coming from humble beginnings, the discipline of running and academics, the camaraderie of the running community, and overcoming adversity, what can you share with my readers that will help them on the pathway to reaching their potential athletically and as a person?
SM The great thing about having gone through the mill happens when you are now coaching athletes and can see some of the mistakes they are making. I tell my athletes that they can listen to me, or they can choose not to and make mistakes. If they listen to me, I will give them advice. If they don’t listen, at some time they will come to me, and I will give them the same advice. I can advise, mentor, and encourage athletes. Most of them will listen to me. I tell them that I know what they are going through. I am glad when they listen and can appreciate what I am telling them. I feel good because I can advise them. The athletes benefit and that is what is important.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests In my free time I like to go to nice places to have lunch and dinner with my wife. Also, I like to play basketball with my kids. I stress the importance of education to my kids and help wherever I can. I try to relax and have time to myself
Nicknames Most of my friends always called me ‘Big Sam.’ When I was running, I got quite big so, out of respect, they use the name ‘Big Sam’
Favorite movies If there are any movies that can always inspire me, they are the ‘Rocky’ movies with Rocky Balboa. One of the nice things about being around Mark Everett is he would mention movies and show me movies that lifted me up with a lot of admiration. One of them was ‘Rocky’ and all the ‘Rocky movies from number one up to number six. ‘Coach Carter’ is another one. They are very inspiring movies
Favorite TV shows Mostly I watch the sports channels like ESPN and events like the Super Bowl. I keep up with college basketball and the Final Four. I watch college football. It is exciting. Those were always at my fingertips
Favorite music The music I enjoyed when I came to the U.S. was by Whitney Houston. I saw her music videos when I came to the U.S. in 1989 for the first time. She was very young. I was amazed at the talent I saw in her as a young singer. I had never seen anyone like her and always enjoyed her music. I was not a fan of rap music, but I did like the songs of Tupac Shakur when I heard his music. I also enjoyed some of the great singers like Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson. Some of the older singers inspired me and I listened to their music often
Favorite books Reading was not one of my hobbies. Watching movies was more of my hobby. I read current affairs and keep up with what is happening in the world much more than reading books. As I got older, I would read some books
First car That is an area where I am not particularly good. A Honda Accord. I loved driving it
Current car A Toyota car. I’ve never been a fan of getting expensive cars like a BMW like some people like to buy
First Job In Zambia, I would do piece work like mowing someone’s grass or cleaning their yard to get some quick money. In America, I did some maintenance work on the college campus
Family My dad passed on a couple of years ago. My mother is still alive and in her mid-eighties and lives in the village. I have a son in America, Sanuel Matete, Junior. We still communicate and talk on the phone. Here in Zambia, I am married and have four kids. For the most part, I am raising my children. The oldest – he is eighteen years old. The youngest is ten years old
Pets I never have been a pet person or somebody who likes dogs or cats. My two sons love dogs. We had two dogs, but one of them died. Since we only have one now, they want to get some more. I told them to wait because I don’t like dogs. But they want to get another one to replace the one that died
Favorite breakfast International House of Pancakes and Waffle House
Favorite meal I try not to eat much meat. I do eat chicken and also have vegetables most of the time
Favorite beverages I don’t drink alcohol beverages much but will have wine once in a while. Otherwise, I drink coffee, water and tea
First running memory This was during what was called ‘The House Competition.’ We divided our school into four houses. All the students had to belong to a house, and we had competitions against the other houses. I was about fifteen or sixteen years old. This was the first time that I was exposed to the one hundred meters, and I won it. Then I went to the long jump and won. I won every event I entered and that is how I started to enjoy athletics
Running heroes Edwin Moses, Danny Harris, John Akii-Bua, and Amadou Dia Ba were the athletes who were ahead of me, and they played a big role and impacted my life
Greatest running moments Winning the World Championships, winning the Commonwealth Games and winning the African Games are the three major races I won that I will always remember. The fourth one would be the Olympic Games and coming in second place behind Derrick Adkins
Most disappointing running moment : It must be the 1992 Olympic Games. Also, the World University Games which were held in Buffalo, New York. Those two were disappointing, but they were all part of the game that afterward made me stronger
Childhood dreams The dream I had was when computers were being introduced. I interacted with one and I loved computers. That was one of my dreams, because I enjoyed working with computers from the first time I was introduced to them
Embarrassing moment one When I was going to a race in Italy, I lost a bag and didn’t have my race shoes. I ended up borrowing two different pairs of shoes. I took two shoes to the race and both of them turned out to be the left foot. That was embarrassing. I ran, but you can imagine how I felt because I was wearing one of the shoes and, on my other foot, a training flat. That was the most embarrassing, but I did that
Embarrassing moment two I thought I had shorts underneath my sweatpants when I was warming up. When it was time to race, I realized that I didn’t have shorts on. Now I had to look for shorts to wear and ended up borrowing a different kind of shorts. But I had to run so I had no choice. I had to do it
Favorite places to travel Italy was always fun. The whole entirety of Europe is great because it is like one big global community. Now I understand why borders move because it is like one big family. Travelling in Europe was very much fun. I like going to Disney World. One time Mark Everett took me to the Kennedy Space Center where the Space Shuttle would take off. I asked ahead of time, ‘How big is this spaceship?’ I couldn’t imagine it until I saw it up close. I still marvel to date about how this big space shuttle could get up in the sky and fly away
Final Comments from Sam Feel free to text me 24/7 if you have any more questions and I will text back. Thank you so much for this interview. If I visit Florida again, I will be very happy if we can go to the Space Center