Matthew Dayton, American Nordic Ski Olympian, has been on skis all his life. But it wasn’t until the age of 25, one year younger than the average Olympian, that he reached his dream and made into the 2002 Winter Olympics.
As a native to Summit County, Colorado and growing up with a family of skiers, Dayton doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t strapped into a pair of skis. Nordic skiing was even the family business. As any Nordic enthusiast would do, Gene, Matt’s father, put him on skis as soon as he could walk, and he’s had the bug ever since.
From 18 months old, when Matt believes he began skiing, to reaching the Olympics 23 and a half years later, there were many hurdles an athlete of his nature needed to surpass. For Matt, it was a rapid 6 years of hurdles. After high school many athletes “retire”, but Matt wasn’t ready to hang up his skis like so many others he grew up with. He quickly moved to Steamboat Springs to continue his cross country ski training. This is when Matt decided to test his athleticism on the slopes as a ski jumper.
Most ski jumpers begin their training at a young age, between 7 and 9 years old. When Matt began he wasn’t jumping with skiers his age, but he was towering on the slope among learners eager like himself — learners who also happened to be a decade younger than he was.
“When you’re 18 or 19 years old, you think you’re invincible. That helps a lot. I couldn’t imagine doing it now,” Matt said.
In the mere time frame between November 1996 and March of 1997, Matt worked his way up from the 30-meter beginner jump to the 90-meter professional jump. He had all the support he needed, trained in elite facilities with coaches capable of taking him to the next level, and he had natural ability on his side. After a day of training, lasting anywhere between 4 and 6 hours, you would find Matt in his bedroom late at night practicing jumping exercises.
Determination — Matt says he didn’t know any better. To compete at the Olympics, determination is one of the fuels that power an athlete.
He went on to compete in the Junior Nationals with the top athletes in the country. He described the lengthy process of getting to the Olympics saying, “You just kind of work your way up”.
Talent, of course, surged through his blood, but time was the real ticket that sent him packing for Salt Lake in 2002. After joining a developing team, Matt began taking his skis international. First on a stint in World Cup B, which he describes as the “minor leagues” for Nordic skiers. Doing well in World Cup B lands a skier a spot in World Cup A. World Cup A prepares skiers for the Olympics.
Time really was a determinant of Matt’s Olympic dream. During the 1996-1997 winter season, the U.S. Ski Team approached Matt looking for a new team of younger athletes to “groom” into Olympians. Only eight or nine skiers were asked to train with the Olympic team — Matt was one of them. The coaches saw his strength as a Nordic skier and recognized his potential on the jumping hill.
“The timing was divine,” Matt said.
Rovaniemi, Finland, November 2001
In preparation for the 2002 Olympics, Matt trained in Rovaniemi in the World Cup. Far away from home and family, he found his motivation fleeing. He prayed for motivation throughout training for the World Cup, and to preform well enough to earn a spot on the Olympic team. But during a practice jump, Matt missed his landing, and the resulting grade-two concussion forced him to stay off the skis for three days. When Matt returned to reconquer that hill, he fell unconscious after catching a gust of wind during another practice jump. This concussion forced him to hang up his skis for a month.
Back in Colorado, after recovering from two concussions, Matt had five days to train before the World Cup in Steamboat. He doesn’t conceal the fact that he was scared to return to the hill. Ski jumping is a “mental game,” and he had mental roadblocks to overcome before competition.
“My prayers were answered in a round-a-bout way,” Matt said.
Matt made his personal best. He finished in 5th and 6th place in the World Cup, earning the spot on the Olympic team that he had competed his entire life for. The win rejuvenated Matt, giving him back both motivation and desire to compete.
Injury plagues all competitive athletes, and if it doesn’t you’re a lucky minority. Matt’s concussions during the trials could have put a quick end to his Olympic journey. This is the story of great athletes everywhere. Many get close, but never reach that final destination.
“So many pieces have to fall into place,” Matt said.
An athlete must have the will power to push through the physical exertion, past mental defiance, and continue each day with the same, strong work ethic of Day One. Jumping is very much a mental game, but doing it long enough diminishes the fear of the jump, Matt said. Crashing is inevitable, but the real test standing back up to do it again.
“Mentally, it’s a very challenging sport because you can have great fluctuations in your performance. It can seem, at the time, very unexplainable,” Matt said.
Simply, what drove Matt to test his odds, odds that were against him, was his love and adoration of the sport. As far as Nordic goes, he wanted to see how far he could take it. Jumping gave him a thrill.
“On the jumping side, it just looked like a hell of a lot of fun. [...] I loved being in the air. I loved the feeling of that. The feeling of flying,” Matt said.
He reminded himself daily his dream could turn to realty if he just kept going. Every training, practice, and competition was just a piece of the greater vision.