Matthew O’Neal never envisioned himself making it this far.
When the former USF athlete steps onto the track at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon on Thursday, he’ll have the chance to become one of three American jumpers to represent the U.S. in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the triple jump event .
However, even with all the success O’Neal has had in the past four years at USF, he’s still going up against long odds, as he will try to become one of three jumpers. out of the 24 who will compete Thursday.
“He’s got an outside shot at the trials for the team because we did go gold and silver in the triple jump the last Olympics … (and) anything can happen on that day,” USF track and field coach Warren Bye said. “But I think anything Matt O’Neal sets his mind to, he can do, and if that’s something he wants to do, I think he’ll do a very, very good job at it.”
The last tandem to represent the U.S. in the triple jump qualified with jumps of 57-feet, 7 inches and 57 feet, 10 1/4 inches.
O’Neal’s best jump, which came this year at the NCAA East Preliminary event was 55-feet-9 3/4 inches.
“I’m more or less excited,” O’Neal said. “Coming in, I feel like there’s less pressure on me because I’m not the number one jumper coming in. I like the aspect of coming in and being able to step up. Going into Thursday, I’m looking forward to continuing on to the finals on Saturday.”
Beginning on Thursday at 4:45 p.m., the pool of 24 jumpers will be whittled down to 12 who will continue on Saturday, then down to eight later that day, before another round of jumps to determine the final three.
But even though O’Neal is on the cusp of athletic greatness for track and field, he didn’t think this kind of career was in store for him, even when choosing which college to attend.
Growing up playing 14 years of soccer and eventually committing to the USF men’s soccer team in 2012, O’Neal’s heart was affixed to the soccer pitch.
“Growing up, I played soccer basically all of my life,” O’Neal said. “I always saw myself playing soccer because I really enjoyed soccer, and I still do.
“I just had a lot of fun playing soccer, so the decision to come over to track do that full time for my last year was a decision made by prayer and seeing just how good I could to do in track by just focusing on that for the year and getting the full training, the fall included. It’s turned out to be pretty good.”
He played as a defender for coach George Kiefer’s squad for three seasons before eventually sacrificing his spot on the team prior to the 2015 season.
The decision paid off in a big way for O’Neal, as he was able to become an All-American twice, break his own school record multiple times and set the conference record for the triple jump.
To qualify for the Olympic squad, O’Neal will likely have to set another personal record, but USF jumps coach Kiamesha Otey, who also once competed in the Olympic Trials, said she thinks O’Neal has a shot.
“Oh definitely, (O’Neal) most definitely (has a chance),” Otey said. “There are a lot of good triple jumpers in the United States. I guess the top three that most people who follow track specifically would know are Christian Taylor, Will Claye and Marquis Dendy.
“But, I like his chances going into the meet. This is his first time at the Olympic Trials, it definitely is a big meet, and it’s a big moment. But, he’ll be fine in the competition.”
With so much on the line this week, O’Neal said he hasn’t changed much about his training or preparation, with the exception of an adjusted takeoff.
“I’ve been working on my approach,” O’Neal said. “I changed some steps on my approach to get a little bit more speed coming down the runway, so hopefully that will help out. Adding more speed has been something I’ve thought about doing, and so far, it’s worked out in practices.”
Any extra motivation O’Neal might have needed will arrive in the form of his mother and three siblings, who arrive in Eugene tonight.
The O’Neal’s, who are from Jackson, Mississippi, often can’t make it to Matthew’s events, but will be in the stands Thursday.
“My family, they’ve been there for me all my life, so I’m definitely thankful they were able to come,” O’Neal said. “They always show support and love, even if they’re not able to make it out to the track. I know they’re either watching online or rooting for me. I really appreciate my family, and I’m glad they’re able to make it out for this competition. It’s definitely going to be a contributing factor, having the support of my family here.”
Despite coming into college with the intent of making his mark on the soccer field, O’Neal has accomplished more than he could have ever dreamt on the track with a chance to take his success to the national stage this weekend.
With a full season of training under his belt for the first time in his career and fresh ink in the USF and AAC record books, O’Neal’s potential leap into the spotlight is coming at just the right time.
“I always say everything happens for a reason and with God, all things are possible,” O’Neal said. “Coming off of a blessing of a senior year, this all couldn’t have happened at a better time. Definitely great timing is what I would say.”