HOUSTON — The end of adolescence always means transition, and Matthew Boling’s path has been more exhilarating and complicated than most. At the start of spring, Boling was one of the top high school track athletes in the country, headed to the University of Georgia on a full scholarship. He was a quiet, confident kid on pace to graduate with a 4.2 grade-point average, an 18-year-old who played home run derby with pals.
Before a spring-break meet in March, Boling asked his coach at Strake Jesuit whether he could try the 100 meters, his sport’s crown jewel and a race he hadn’t run since seventh grade. Over the next two months, about 10 blurry seconds at a time, Boling became, in the rueful phrasing of his coach, “a story.”
In late April, at a Texas regional meet, Boling ran 100 meters, wind-aided, in 9.98 seconds, the fastest time at a high school event in any conditions. In those 34 strides, his life changed. He appeared on the BBC, CNN and “NBC Nightly News.” He interacted with his idols on social media. His coach hired a uniformed officer to shadow him at the Texas state championships. He will be one of the most recognizable names in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, for which Boling intends to qualify.
His races went viral under headlines referring to him as “White Lightning,” a new nickname he didn’t want and wishes would disappear. Boling said his competitors never mention the fact he is white, that his race means nothing on the track. Instagram commenters and reporters are the ones who keep bringing up his skin color.
“I don’t really pay attention to it, because I’m busy running,” he said. “It’s whatever.”
Boling’s accomplishments are undeniable. Two weeks after his viral, wind-aided 100, at the Texas state championships he ran it in 10.13 seconds, the fastest official 100 meters in any high school competition — and yet it may not be his best event. In the 4x400-meter relay at the state meet, he took the baton for the anchor leg trailing by about 40 meters. He chased down the runner from DeSoto High with a 44.7-second split, a mark only four high school sprinters have ever beat. Want to feel goose bumps? YouTube it.
Petros Kyprianou, the head coach at Georgia, said he thinks Boling’s best event — and strongest bet for Tokyo — is the long jump. “I believe his ability to pop off the board off that kind of speed, I think that’s Carl Lewis’s long jump ability, to be honest with you,” Kyprianou said. His talents are varied enough that neither Kyprianou nor Boling knows how his career will unfold, which events he eventually will focus on among the long jump, 100, 200, 400 and two relays.
Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist sprinter and an NBC Sports analyst, called Boling “one of the best high school athletes that we’ve seen ever.” He ticked off Boling’s exploits: a 10.13-second wind-legal 100 meters; a 20.55-second 200 meters; a sub-45 second 400-meter relay split; a long jump of 26 feet 3 1/2 inches; a 9.6-second split in the 4x100 relay.
“The good thing about track and field, it’s not a subjective matter,” Boldon said. “We can look at his results and his measurements and go: ‘Oh, it’s not that this guy is getting a lot of attention because of his skin color or because he moved on to the 100. He’s getting the attention because he’s literally doing things we haven’t seen before.’ ”
He comes from a family of high-achievers. Boling’s twin brother, Michael, graduated as Strake Jesuit’s valedictorian and will attend Georgia Tech. His mother, Monique, ran triathlons in her 40s, and his father, Mark, recently started a sustainable energy company. Boling attended private Christian schools since kindergarten, and Strake Jesuit boasts a sprawling campus that would make small colleges jealous. While extolling his work ethic, his parents recognize Boling has lived a sheltered life. “Houston is a huge city,” Monique said. “But he’s been in a bubble.”
Had he never tried the 100 or set any records, Boling would be leaving his bubble. But he simply would be an elite track and field recruit, which means he would be pretty much anonymous. Instead, he will leave home as a local legend, an international Internet sensation and a story that mixes sports and race.
“It’s like there’s all this stuff happening around him more than to him,” Monique Boling said, sitting on a couch in front of a coffee table with a stack of local magazines, two of which featured her son’s face on the cover. “Like it’s not changing him yet.”
“Yet,” Mark Boling added, sitting on a chair across the room. “That’s one of the things as parents we’re more concerned about than anything.”
‘Okay, this kid is legit’
In the niche universe of American track and field, Boling was a known commodity before this spring. He entered the season ranked No. 1 nationally in the 400 meters. He committed to Georgia, twice a recent national champion, before he even tried the 100. “I kind of liked his demeanor and how quiet he is,” Kyprianou said. “I kind of call him ‘The Silent Assassin.’ ”
In early March, Boling had an idea. He had led Strake Jesuit to comeback victories in the 4x100 relay while running a 9.6-second split. He wanted to see what he could do in the 100 out of blocks, figuring it would be good speed work to improve his 400. Chad Collier, Strake Jesuit’s head coach, agreed.
Before the meet, Collier filled out his seed time — a mark used to create competitive heats that normally is based on previous results but in this case was more of an estimate — at 10.35 seconds. “Coach,” Boling said to Collier, “you’re putting pressure on me.” He figured he could run 10.5, maybe 10.4 with luck.
When he crossed the line and looked and saw 10.28 seconds on the clock, he thought, “Oh, my gosh.” When Kyprianou heard about the time, he told his assistants, “Okay, this kid is legit.” Boling had more events the next day, but that night he had trouble falling asleep, unable to get the 100 off his mind.
Boling started to view himself as a short sprinter, and in late April he settled into the blocks at regionals. He could feel wind blowing at his back. He had watched abnormally fast girls heats. He thought maybe he could beat his previous best by a full tenth of a second.
For the first 20 meters, Boling was even with the other seven sprinters — his first strike out of the box with his left foot was a false step sideways. During his drive phase, he took a clear lead, separating from the field with his powerful, long strides and upright running style uncommon for short-distance sprinters. He crossed the line 10 meters clear.
“When I looked across the line and saw 9.98, it was crazy,” Boling said. “I don’t care that there was wind. It was crazy.”
As Boling started to cool down and prepare for his next event, a 4x400 relay, a man approached and asked to take a picture with him. “This is a little off,” Collier said he thought to himself.
By that Monday, Boling understood his life had changed. He gained 50,000 Instagram followers, including Washington Redskins running back and Houston-area native Adrian Peterson, who wrote to him, “if you need anything, I’m here.” Agents and equipment companies called. A British tabloid reporter rang the doorbell at his home. Collier handled media requests, and as about 50 of them poured in, it became a source of stress and nearly a full-time job.
The Astros wanted Boling to throw out a first pitch. When he went to the Galleria shopping mall, people stopped and asked for pictures. Georgia coaches flew to Houston and, over fajitas and Monique’s banana pudding, discussed issues relating to NCAA eligibility. For the state meet, Collier hired a security guard to act as a shield so Boling could focus on events.
The Bolings experienced a mix of shock and pride. When Monique checked social media, she was aghast and fought the urge to respond. At races, Mark would hear people say they had come to watch Boling and think, “That’s my boy.”
In response to a news story about NFL wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. saying he would race anyone for $10,000, Boling tweeted, “Bet.” Mark said ABC’s “Good Morning America” contacted him, trying to set up a race. He declined.
“It was starting to feel like people were trying to turn him into a sideshow,” Mark said.
Eighty percent of the attention and just about all of it at meets, Mark said, was positive. About 20 percent was negative. A tiny percentage was unspeakable.
“There was somebody that left a message at Strake Jesuit saying he was the father of the Lord,” Mark Boling said, “and he commanded ‘White Lightning’ to go down and represent the white race.”
An unwanted nickname
The attention paid to his race is the most uncomfortable part for Boling. During an hour-long interview in Collier’s office last week, Boling was open and engaging. When asked how his skin color affected perceptions of him, he glanced away and gazed toward the ground, rubbing his face.
“I don’t care or notice, but people bring it up a bunch, like on Instagram,” he said. “But I don’t really care.”
None of his friends call him White Lightning. He would like nobody else to, either. One radio interviewer asked what his nickname should be. “Matt,” Matthew replied.
“I cringed when that White Lightning thing started,” Mark said. “We’re very hopeful that will die an early death.”
His skin color may not be a defining trait, but it is an unavoidable curiosity. The seven sprinters in the blocks next to him at both the regional and state meets were black. Only one white American man — fellow Texan Jeremy Wariner, in 2004 — in the past 50 years has won an Olympic sprinting gold medal, and that was in the 400. All eight sprinters in the 100 final at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games were black.
“Of course it’s going to get him extra attention, for the same reason Tiger Woods, when he showed up, got a lot of extra attention,” Boldon said. “I get it. Anybody who ignores that is being disingenuous. For me, your skin color might get you attention. That gets you to the party. The question is, can you dance? And this kid can dance. … Once you see him, the color of his skin is immediately going to be the last thing you think about.”
In a phone conversation, Wariner was asked whether Boling will receive added scrutiny because of his race. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, he will.” The era will bring Boling a different brand of attention than Wariner faced. Before social media, even many track fans saw only his name and times and didn’t realize he was white before he made the 2004 Olympic team.
“Now with social media, he’s being seen as the fastest white person instead of being seen as the fastest person,” Wariner said. “That’s the way I see him — he’s just the fastest person out there right now.”
Boldon made a telling point. As Boling competes in more international events, he will find his race becoming less of a topic.
“For those of us who exist in this sport outside of the United States, a fast white guy is not that big a deal,” Boldon said. “A fast guy that’s not black is not that big a deal. We’re used to seeing it. We kind of laugh at how Americans go, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is fast, and he’s white.’ ”
‘He was running for his team’
Late Wednesday morning, during a rare quiet moment under a hazy gray sky, Boling sat next to the Strake Jesuit oval and pulled off-white spikes, dirty from a season of racing, out of a blue duffel bag. “Watch how he ties his shoes,” Collier said. Boling puts the same shoe on first every time. He pulls the laces tight, folds them, pulls them tight, loops, pulls tight. The process, always the same, takes several minutes.
“It’s like an OCD thing, I guess,” Boling said.
He has always been meticulous. As a 3-year-old, when Michael would fling toys around the room, he would line up Matchbox cars in neat rows. In his room, he lined up his medals — more than 100 of them — on hangers in the precise order in which he won them. He never changes his routine before a meet. Spaghetti or salmon the night before. Eggs, bacon, toast for breakfast. An Epsom salt bath and a water-chia seed shake.
Last week, Collier asked the 6-foot Boling how much he weighed. “One-sixty,” Boling said. “But I once got to 158 on accident.”
Boling’s future is a blank slate. His Tokyo chances are realistic, but what form they will take is to be determined. Collier thinks the 400 is still his best race. Kyprianou said he believes Boling can put himself in position to contend for a long jump medal. He needs vast improvement in the 100 to compete with the likes of Noah Lyles and Christian Coleman and so many other top American sprinters, but his age and lack of experience mean he has room.
“If I was going to tell you exactly what I’m going to do with him in college, I would be just blowing smoke,” Kyprianou said.
“I learned the hard way in terms of doubting how far he can go,” Mark Boling said. “If he tells me he’s heading off to the Olympics, I’m buying the tickets.”
Video of Boling’s legendary anchor leg at the state meet went viral. Make sure to watch the end. When Boling crosses the line, teammates rush toward him. Boling stops and glances behind him. It is confusing without context — he looks nothing like an athlete who has just finished his high school career with a heroic and dominant flourish.
Boling knew if his team won the race and Klein Forest High finished sixth or worse, Strake Jesuit would win the overall state title. When he crossed the line, he turned around to see where the Klein Forest runners finished. They finished fifth, leaving Strake Jesuit in second by two points. He didn’t celebrate one of the fastest laps in high school history. He mourned his team’s narrow miss.
“He was running for his team,” Collier said. “That wasn’t about him.”
Boling understands, with a dose of melancholy, his time as a member of a team is coming to an end. He looks forward to running for Georgia, but he and everyone around him — Kyprianou included — knows his NCAA career will be brief. Georgia’s coaches have vowed to develop Boling with an eye toward Tokyo and a pro career.
“I think I could [turn pro] this year, but I don’t think that would be the best decision to reach my dreams,” Boling said. “I feel like I’m getting a lot of attention, but I feel like it would be based more off attention than, like, I’m ready. I still feel like I need more time to compete.”
The Monday after the state meet, a sadness set in. With no more practices, Boling returned home after school and thought, “I’m going to miss my team so much.”
Mark has his own nickname for Boling. When they were toddlers, Michael couldn’t pronounce Matthew and called his twin brother “Chew Chew.” Matthew loved “Star Wars,” too, so Mark christened him “Chewy.”
At one recent meet, Mark watched Boling walk past a group of fans hoping for autographs. He was too deep in preparation to stop, but he noticed a little girl, maybe 10 years old, holding a pen and paper. He signed for her. He later told his parents, “I couldn’t say no.”
Life has moved fast for Boling over the past month, and after another six weeks or so he will leave home. More change is coming around him. Those around him hope it doesn’t change him. When he saw him sign the autograph for the little girl, Mark Boling thought, “That’s Chewy.”
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