Each year, we select an athlete that personifies our mission – to encourage healthy lifestyles for ALL, and to change the face of triathlon. Our 2018 Athlete of the Year is nothing short of amazing – and we can’t wait for you to meet him. Welcome to the team, Matt Wulff!
I’m going to do something a little crazy. I’m going to ask you to stop reading for a moment. You’re probably thinking, “that’s fine, you haven’t said anything interesting yet anyway.” You’re right, but you’re still reading. So, stop now and take a minute to think about a moment in your life that has defined who you are or that gave you a glimpse into what you want out of life.
Ok, enough about you. Back to me.
I like to believe that everyone reading this can point to one or more specific defining moments. I consider myself very lucky to have three moments that I think about almost every day. These moments have shaped who I am as a man, a parent, a husband, a friend and an athlete.
Moment 1: The Lighting Strike
After graduating college, I spent three months as an assistant boys high school soccer coach at Wausau West, where my Dad was the head coach. We had a very good team — if not the most talented — and earned a birth in the Wisconsin State Tournament, held at Breese Stevens Field in Madison.
We won our quarterfinal matchup and entered halftime of the state semifinal tied 0-0. Breese Stevens is a very old stadium, so at halftime we headed to our locker room which was a dingy room down a set of stairs and underneath the stands.
As our halftime chat ended, I walked up those stairs and turned to look out across the field on that chilly November night and I was hit with an intense wave of emotion – energy shot through me. I imagine that’s sort of what it feels like to be struck by lightning. We were 40 minutes away from the state final. We had hope. As I write this, I can feel that same emotion coursing through my veins. I have never forgotten that feeling of believing in the possible and it has not dulled over the years.
Moment 2: The Hardest Decision
In April 2004, my Dad had a stroke and was left in a locked-in state. His brain was functioning, but his body was not. He was only alive because he was on a ventilator. My Dad was a very cerebral man. He loved to read and write and think and talk. He also love to help others. All that was taken away from him. Ultimately, we agreed he did not want to live the rest of his life stuck in a bed hooked up to a machine and made the impossible decision to turn off the ventilator. He died on April 4, 2004. 4-4-04. I was 26.
Now that I’m 40, I can only wonder what my Dad would think of the life I have created. I can only wonder if he is proud of me. My dad did so much for the communities that he lived in, that I often wonder if he’d think I don’t do enough. That’s a thought that motivates me and something I wish I could talk to him about.
Moment 3: The Giant Toddler
I hadn’t played soccer in almost 10 years when a group of my colleagues put together a team and joined a league. I signed up. I was 36. I wasn’t in soccer shape. I wasn’t really in foosball shape. The team was awful. Like the Bad News Bears before they got good. Lucky for me, adult goalies are hard to come by and another, much better team, asked me to play with them.
About a year into my (somewhat) triumphant return, I suffered the first real injury of my playing career. Turns out, it was a doozy. During an indoor game, I jumped and was hit from behind. I landed on the back of my head on what was basically a concrete floor. That split second changed me forever. That’s not hyperbole. My brain was damaged and about 10% of my prefrontal cortex is scar tissue and I have no sense of smell.
If you’re not aware, your prefrontal cortex is the home of your personality. Thus, my personality changed too. I was not someone you would describe as “having a great personality.” I was a total grumpy ass. I had an adult vocabulary and the self-control of a three year old. Plus, I’m 6’2” and about 240lbs. I was a big, vulgar, paranoid three year old.
I was like this for the better part of 7 months and then progressively got better over the following 5 months. During that time, I was advised not to do anything physical that could lead to getting hit in the head. So, I did nothing. For a year.
On the surface, in the “moment,” I wouldn’t have labeled these as happy or learning moments. I coached a losing team (spoiler alert – we lost 1-0), my Dad died and I had a traumatic brain injury. Given the choice at the time, I would have changed the outcome of each of them.
Despite that fact, I am who I am because of these moments. I like who I’ve become. I like having had a chance to win. I like being motivated by the life my Dad lived, however short. I like that I was fortunate enough to recover and re-learn who I am after an injury. The first and third moments are why I became a triathlete. The first physical activity I did after my year off was to train for and complete a sprint triathlon. I thought triathlon could help me find that same feeling I had had at the soccer game. I had also lost the self-consciousness that had prevented me from signing up for a triathlon previously. The second moment is why I’m looking for ways to give back to the community I live in. It’s one way of honoring my Dad’s legacy.
As I said earlier, I like to believe that everyone reading this can point to one or more specific defining moments. I also think it’s never too early to put yourself or someone you love in a position to create a defining moment. Like, say, introducing your child to the incredible experience of completing a triathlon.
My entry into triathlon has led me down a path that has intersected with Katie Hensel’s path and the path she has chartered for Tri 4 Schools. I feel very lucky and am grateful for the opportunity to be Athlete of the Year. One of the many things that I love about Tri 4 Schools is that it creates an opportunity for thousands of kids to create some of their first defining moments. I can’t wait to help drive the mission of Tri 4 Schools forward as Athlete of the Year. I’ve got a number of goals for 2018 – some for me, some for others, and I like that mix.
- Raise $5000+ for Tri 4 Schools
- Inspire my son to continue his triathlon adventure
- Introduce my daughter to triathlon
- Connect Tri 4 Schools to the foster care community
- Be an angel with My Team Triumph in a sprint triathlon
- Ironman WI – Complete my second Ironman – under 12 hours with a much improved run from 2017
- Hit my goal weight of 210 lbs through healthy eating and lots of training
I’m going to be writing about my journey towards meeting these goals throughout the year. I’ll also be posting regularly (hopefully daily) on Instagram (@uwmatt618) about my training, racing and recovery days. No, these will not be me bragging about the number of miles I rode or ran or swam. Rather, I’ll try to expose everyone to the interesting and fun realities of training for an Ironman, trying to eat right, raising money, promoting Tri 4 Schools and helping my kids race. (you can look forward to a series on leg shaving in late May)
If you’d like to help kick-start my fundraising efforts, you can do so right here.
|What’s your name?||Matt Wulff|
|How old are you?||40, but I’m only as mature as a 12 year old. An immature 12 year old.|
|Are you married? Any kids?||Wife Julie, son Jackson (7) and daughter Georgia (3). I’m a very proud adoptive and foster parent.|
|Where do you live?||Fitchburg, but I spend much of my time in Target which is less than a mile from my house.|
|Where are you from?||Wausau, WI born and raised on the westside is where I spent most of my days.|
|Parents?||Yep. My Dad, Bob, was instrumental in establishing competitive soccer in Wausau and coached youth and high school soccer for many years. My mom, Judy, ran our house and somehow managed to get 5 kids to school every day and survive the summers with us all at home. My parents believed very much in giving back and helping those in need and I am hoping to emulate their generosity in some small way.|
|Do you have siblings?||Three brothers and a sister. All athletes, but I’m the only Ironman. My brothers live in Lithia (Florida), Asheville and Kansas City and my sister lives in Seattle.|
|Were you an athlete growing up?||I played soccer from age 5 until I was 21 or 22. I was primarily a goalie but moved to forward after high school. I also played hockey. Didn’t start until I was a junior in high school, but I turned into a pretty good goalie and played on the club team for a year at Marquette University. I also dabbled in youth wrestling, basketball, football, baseball and downhill skiing. I sort of stunk at each of those.|
|What’s your favorite athletic memory?||I believed I had been drafted into the NFL as a 37 year old with no real football experience. This was a very real memory that I had for about four days after my brain injury. I got very mad at people for not being more excited for me.|
|What’s your favorite triathlon race distance?||I don’t have a favorite. I love and despise them each for different reasons.|
|How many races did you do last year?||Maybe a few too many: 6 Sprint Tri’s, 2 marathons (Madison, Disney), 8 running races from 5K to 20K, Horribly Hilly Hundreds 100K Ride, Three 70.3’s (Wilmington, Wisconsin and Door County) and Ironman WI|
|Do you have any shame?||No. I am a triathlete. I’ll change anywhere, go to the bathroom anywhere and wear spandex into any public establishment.|
|What’s your spirit animal?||Rhinoceros. Read “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm”. I have a custom rhino decal I made on my tri bike.|
|Which way does your toilet paper hang on the wall – over or under?||Over. This is the right answer. It is the only answer.|
|Who is your favorite superhero and why?||Deadpool. We have a similar sense of humor.|
|If a movie was made of your life what genre would it be, who would play you?||I’d like it to be a movie about nothing, in the vein of Seinfeld. Jason Bateman would play me and they’d use camera tricks to make him look taller.|
|Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever hugged?||Brooke Shields. Very strong shoulders.|
|Are you a morning or a night person?||Not really.|
|Introvert or Extrovert?||I need a couple days to think about this by myself.|
|What is your favorite hobby?||People training for Ironman don’t get to have hobbies, unless constantly washing spandex clothing is a hobby.|
|What’s the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?||I’ve been binging on Netflix shows lately and Stranger Things and Peaky Blinders are my favorites.|
|Have you ever been home run champion in kickball?||I’m glad you asked. I am a 7-time winner of the home run title in MUSA kickball league.|
|Have you ever won any doubles badminton tournaments?||Wow, oddly specific question. I am, in fact, a three time winner of a mildly competitive mixed-gender badminton tournament. My badminton partner, Dan Berry, and I have had a very nice run of success in unconventional adult sports.|
|Do your kids do triathlons?||Jackson did his first triathlon last summer in Middleton and will be doing more races in 2018. Georgia will be joining us for a race or two as well in 2018.|
|Do you have any pre-race routines or traditions?||I like to lay out all of my equipment the night before a race a take a picture of it. I’m not really a creature of habit before races though, and this has led to me forgetting things, like my race bib for example.|
|What race/event are you most proud of?||Tough question for me. I finish every race thinking I could have done better and about how I’ll work to do better in the next race. If you forced me to pick, I’d have to go with the big one, Ironman WI.|
|Any parting thoughts?||There is no secret to success in triathlon. Just keep showing up to train each day and you’ll be on your way to reaching your goals. It also doesn’t hurt to be 5’8” and weigh like 135 lbs.|