"I realize that the sport has shaped my life”


There is the belief that sporting talent will emerge regardless of the opportunities that are available.  This turns into a self-perpetuating myth where those who aren’t perceived to be talented from an early age aren’t put forward to try different sports.  This ultimately means that any abilities they do possess go undiscovered.

This is especially the case for boys who don’t exhibit any particular ability in football.  And this was also the case for Matthew Croker.

“I was the classic ‘last boy to be chosen’ when playing football with my friends,” he relays.  “As a quiet young boy, I had never shown any particular talent in sport.”

All that changed, however, when he was nine years old.
“My brother was training with the school team and late Fr. Frank Clifton asked me to join the group instead of staying there just watching.  You can imagine how, on Fr. Clifton's invitation that day, I had gotten super excited.  It was the first time that I was actually asked to join a sporting activity.  I can't recall whether I had done well in that session, but I do remember that all of a sudden I felt like I had found my space.”

“A year later I became a Savio College student, and the framework back then was ideal for me to continue developing.  I had become fully committed to train, and I was also seeing very good results so it became addictive.”

“Definitely, Fr. Clifton's gentle character and empowering spirit played a crucial role in me sticking to the sport until this day.  He used to make sure I trained every day, in every kind of weather and situation, and taught me the discipline of balancing school commitments with sporting achievements.”

“Today I realize that the sport has shaped my life.”

There is hardly any stronger message than that, regardless of the level an athlete is competing at.  In Croker’s case, it is the highest possible one as far as local athletics is concerned; he is one of the leading lights in the 400m as well as the middle distance.

“Athletics is a constant lesson about myself,” he continues.  “My muscle tones, my thoughts, my memories, my maths, my physics, my music, my spirit are the essential elements of my sporting performances. When I'm training I'm facing my limits and I'm learning how to overcome them, or at least try to. And that is every day, morning and evening.”

“I also come to meet great people with the same passion. Athletics is indeed individual, and very often we have to train on our own. But when in my training group or at my Club's training sessions with younger athletes, I feel connected to my peers and my experience in sport feels more complete.”

His evolution as a runner hasn’t been exactly a typical run.  Most athletes fall into their favoured discipline early on but Croker’s career has been one of constant evolution.

“My running style is bouncy and smooth and allows me to build up speed and maintain it for longer distances. Even though I was pretty good in the 100m and 200m when I was younger, when it came to the 400m I always managed to find that extra thing against my competition.”

“As if training for 400m was not hard enough, in 2014 my coach – Mario Bonello – proposed me the idea of trying out the 800m!” he continues.
“To be completely honest he was not the first one to present me the idea but he was, indeed, the most influential person in my life to challenge me with it. Completely out of trust, I accepted it and gave the 800m a try.”

“I still remember my first 800m race. I was leading the pack in the first lap, then I heard the bell and froze. It was the first time I was doing more than one lap in a race in ages, and in fact I had felt sick at the sound of the bell.”

“Slowly but steadily I started changing my training schedule, and my way of life, to that of a middle distance runner.”

“Training became longer and more varied. I started becoming thinner and lighter, more stubborn, maybe crazier but deep in my heart I am still a sprinter.”

Despite all that, his main role mode is a middle distance athlete.   “I do enjoy watching the contemporary greats running – particularly David Rudisha, who's run is also nice and smooth but extremely fast when you see his splits.”

However, Croker admits that his biggest influences have been local athletes.  “My real heroes are two people whom I'm lucky to call good friends: my coach and sprinting great Mario Bonello, and 800m Maltese legend Xandru Grech.”

“Both have been iconic figures in the local scene of athletics. They have run times which we dream of running today: 20 years later! And considering that they had run them when they were extremely young, we're talking late teenage and early twenties.”

“To top it up, they are at the track every single day, ready to encourage us and give us tips so we beat their own times! I'm messaging my coach day and night, telling him whether I slept well or giving him feedback about a given session or maybe just because I'm in a bad mood and, despite his very busy schedule, he's always there to reply and give me his best advice. They are my heroes because I can relate to them in person, and they are ready to help me grow in my sporting career.”

Croker’s love for hard work can also be seen in his training regime.  “When we’re in loading phase, I wake up as early as 5.15am to go to the gym twice a week, and maybe a bit later in the other days to go for a light jog. Then, in the evening after work, I rush to the track every single day for another session. In the weekends, I also have scheduled sessions.”

“After training, I come home and spend 15 to 30 minutes doing yoga. I go for massages very regularly, and physiotherapy whenever needed to clear out anything blocking me from being at my best. I make sure to sleep at least 8 hours a day, and commit to a healthy diet.”
“My parents are extremely supportive in this in particular. Before a race I might watch videos of my races several times to help me visualize any common mistakes I do and prepare mentally for what will be coming soon. I also eat plenty of banana!”

“It’s a very busy schedule, but thankfully I’m in the Government’s Flexi Training Scheme which – in collaboration with my employer Ixaris Systems Ltd – helps me juggle between my professional life and my sporting career.”

Apart from the satisfaction derived from the discipline of training, his career has provided plenty of moments of joy as far as success is considered.

“Moments I will always cherish are when I broke the Youths’ National 400m record back in 2004 for the second time, placing 5th in the National Championships at the age of 15 in a race which had some of Malta's greatest including Mario Bonello, Nikolai Portelli, and Karl Farrugia.”

“Equally memorable are the bronze medal I won at the 2007 COJI in the 400m individual and in the GSSE 2013 in the 4x400m relay while finishing off my Masters’ thesis.”

The highlight of the current season has been the Athletics’ Championships of the Small States of Europe held in Malta earlier this month.  “They were a very positive experience in general.”

“First of all, having countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the like does stretch the definition of ‘small state’, but was very beneficial for us since it posed even stronger opposition.”

“Secondly, the MAAA did a great job in organizing the event - which was no easy task as it had to set the right standard for these new Championships.  It was good to run for my country in front of my family and friends, even though I would have loved to see more Maltese supporters at the stadium. Competitions of this level on this small island, and competitions in which our country is participating, deserve more promotion so that the general public can come to support us.”

“My 800m race was a very tough one and I'm glad I managed to improve my time to 1'53"92 which means that I have managed to enter the elite club of sub-1'54 runners in Maltese history.  It was yet another lesson, and now I feel even more confident for better performances in the upcoming National Championships.”

Ultimately, his ambition is a lofty one.  “There is one target which any Maltese 800m runner has: that of breaking Xandru Grech's 800m National Record, and I believe that I'm closer than ever before to do it this year.”

“That is my number one target and, even if I don't manage to do it this season, I want to get as close as possible.”

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An abridged version of this article originally appeared on the Times of Malta. All photos courtesy of Wally Galea.  


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