By Jason Peake
Missourian Sports Writer
Matt Zupan was hooked from the start.
From the first time he competed in a triathlon, Zupan knew the grueling endurance event was just his thing.
What others see as extreme or nearly impossible, Zupan sees as exhilarating and satisfying.
“I fell in love with the competition,” he recalled.
A decade after he first gave it a try, the 18-year-old former Washington resident who now lives in Wildwood has a strong passion for competing in arguably the toughest single athletic event out there, the triathlon, which features swimming, cycling and running in succession.
“You can tell it really lights a fire in him,” Matt’s mother Lori Zupan said. “He lives for the races.”
And he’s having success, too. Earlier this month Zupan took first place in his age division at the 2014 USA Triathlon Long Course National Championships in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Zupan took first place in the 19-and-under division of the Half-Iron Triathlon, finishing in 4:48.33.
His 1.2-mile swim took just over 32 minutes, while he finished the 56-mile cycling event in about 2 1/2 hours. He completed the final 13.1-mile run in just over an hour and 42 minutes. The second-place finisher was 16 minutes behind Zupan. For winning his age division, Zupan received a medal and a T-shirt that reads, “National Champion.” That’s not all. With the win Zupan qualified to compete in the world championships next summer in Sweden.
“That will be fun,” he said. “I have to talk to my mom about it, but I think I’m going to go.”
While other kids his age are obsessed with baseball, football, basketball or soccer, Zupan chose a different outlet for his athletic endeavors.
So how did Zupan end up competing in triathlons?
Call it a desire to compete — against others and against himself. And for a time, he didn’t have many other options.
When Zupan enrolled at Heritage Classical Christian Academy just outside of St. Louis several years ago he came to a realization. The school has no athletic programs. With that, Zupan found his own athletic challenges outside of school in the form of triathlons.
“I was looking for something athletic outside of school,” he recalled. “I thought triathlons would be fun.”
Zupan had remembered competing in one back when he was just a little guy in Washington.
Matt, the son of Lori and the late Dr. Andrew Zupan, along with sisters Sydney and Caroline, lived in Washington for several years, first arriving when Matt was 5 years old. Although they moved away about three years ago, it was Washington where Matt competed in his first mini-triathlon.
“I was really young, 7 or 8,” Matt recalled. “My twin sister (Sydney) did it, too. It was a small one put on by the YMCA and we crossed the line together holding hands. It was a lot of fun to finish.”
He never forgot that feeling.
Zupan really got into triathlons when he was a freshman in high school when organized team sports were out of the question.
“I’ve been doing them regularly ever since,” he said. “And you meet a lot of people and everyone is always really nice. And I have a love of running. That’s my favorite aspect of it. I’d say the running is probably the toughest part, though.”
If anyone has ever watched or attempted a triathlon or Iron Man competition, they surely know it’s not easy to do. Simply put, it takes a lot of endurance, strength and willpower to finish one.
To get prepared for the long, strenuous event, Zupan works out often.
“I try and do around 15-20 hours a week of training, but it was less during the school year,” Zupan said. “In the summer, I try to do more than that. I do a lot of swimming, biking and running. That’s what I do — I swim, bike, and run.”
Completing a triathlon isn’t easy. It could be described as painful.
“It’s brutal,” Zupan said. “By the time I get off the bike my legs are pretty dead. And then you still have a really long run ahead of you.”
So what keeps Zupan motivated throughout the process?
“I just try to think about the finish and how good it will feel to finish,” he said. “I think about my mom and how much time, effort and money she’s spent to help me. I never want to let her down by not finishing. So I think about that, too. And I just think about how hard I’ve trained. I know if I’ve had some tough workouts I should be able to finish.”
Zupan has traveled all over the Midwest to participate in various events. And he’s had a lot of success and some memorable experiences, too.
For example, he signed up for an event in Ohio that featured a marathon 26.2-mile run. He usually competes in the events that include a run of between 10-13 miles.
“I had not trained that much for it either,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t think I’d finish. But then I actually met someone else from St. Louis while I was running. We started talking during the race and now we’re friends. It was the easiest run I had because we were just talking to each other almost the whole time, about 22 miles.”
Zupan recently competed in Tennessee and of course, he won the event in Michigan. Zupan admitted some of his friends question why he’d want to put his body through such punishment.
“Some of them think I’m absolutely crazy or just nuts,” Zupan said laughing.
Other friends have admitted they’re pretty impressed.
Matt’s mother Lori is his biggest fan.
Lori admitted she and her late husband had some reservations about the triathlons when their son first showed an interest. There was a concern that the pounding his body would take could stunt his growth. An X-ray proved he was done growing. Lori’s been supportive ever since.
“I think he was looking for a challenge,” Lori said. “So we reluctantly agreed. We went along for the ride.”
Lori added it’s been fun to see her son put forth a big effort toward something and then have his hard work pay off.
“He works really hard at it and he really enjoys it,” she said. “It’s nice to see a kid his age find something they’re passionate about. He’s had some success and it’s been a lot of fun for the family to follow along.”
Matt has now graduated from high school and he’ll attend Pepperdine University in California in the fall.
Matt said no matter where he lives, triathlons will continue to be a big part of his life.
He was hooked from the start. And he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I think it’s something I can do throughout my lifetime,” he said. “That’s something else that appeals to me about the sport. You never really have to give it up. Hopefully I’ll do them as long as I can.”