RIO DE JANEIRO – Emmanuel Matadi’s family moved from Liberia when he was young because of civil war.
After a stay in California, the family moved to St. Paul, right down the street from Johnson High School.
Matadi’s mother has fallen on hard times. He said on Tuesday that she had been staying with her sister in Florida, and has recently moved back to Minnesota, where she has yet to find a permanent place to stay.
Somehow the kid from Liberia grew up to be an Olympic sprinter, and somehow his mother made it to Rio in time to watch him compete.
Tuesday morning at Olympic Stadium, thousands of miles from their worst days, Matadi and his mother lived their version of the Olympic dream.
Well, not somehow. None of this happened by chance.
Matadi tried competing at the University of Louisville, came home to St. Paul for a year and a half, and wound up being recruited by a friend to Minnesota State Mankato, where he became a track star.
The family’s friend and the Johnson community started a GoFundMe page for Florence, paying her way to Rio and giving her enough money to find a place to stay when she returns to St. Paul.
“She’s up in the stands right now, somewhere,” Matadi said. “I didn’t even know about it. She surprised me yesterday when she showed up.’’
Tuesday, Matadi failed to advance from the first heats in the 200 meters. He set a Liberian national record in 20.49 but finished fifth in his heat. He also failed to advance in the 100 meters this weekend. He did meet Usain Bolt. “Cool guy,” Matadi said. “Funny guy.”
Matadi’s fondest memories will be bearing Liberia’s flag in the Opening Ceremony and socializing with other athletes at the Olympic Village.
“The Village is dope [slang for awesome],” he said. “You have different types of people from around the world. It’s cool because in the cafe, I can go to one table and feel like I’m in Italy, and go to another and feel like I’m in Argentina or something.’’
Even when standing among the world’s greatest sprinters, Emmanuel Matadi is a hulking figure, showing off powerful shoulders and legs. He’s not sure what the next step in his career will be, but he wants it to be in the direction of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
He has trained with the U.S. rugby team. “Whether I run or play rugby, I’m going to be in the next Olympics,’’ he said. “Right now, I’m still leaning toward running because I love it so much. But rugby is fun. So I don’t know. I’ll know by the end of the summer.’’
The U.S. rugby team lost close matches to Argentina and Fiji in the sport’s return to the Olympics. Matadi’s speed and power might have made the Americans medalists.
But as a rugby player, he would not get the chance to reprise his best Olympic moment: being a country’s flag-bearer, and bearing a country’s athletic hopes.
“It’s crazy, man,’’ he said. “It was an amazing feeling because when you come out of the tunnel, you’re the first person everybody sees. It was a spectacular feeling.
“I have a big, big following, a huge support system now. At home, and in Liberia, everybody’s been watching the races. It makes it so much easier to do it. I’m doing it not just for myself but everybody else.’’