The birth of athletic competition in Western civilization is often traced back to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece. It was in 708 B.C. when the first documented pentathlon took place.
The five events – long jump, javelin throwing, discus throwing, foot race and wrestling – were selected to coincide with training as part of military service. It was thought that being proficient in the pentathlon would be useful in a battle.
The popularity of the pentathlon has continued throughout the ages and has outlasted its need to prepare for war. Now some of the activities are being taught to the next generation of regional athletes.
Gábor Máté is a native of Hungary who competed for Auburn University in the discus, hammer throw and shot put. Máté, who graduated magna cum laude in finance and economics, helped the Tigers to a runner-up position at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships before leaving The Plains.
Máté met his future wife, Mobile native Megan Parish, at Auburn. They have settled in the Port City, where he is teaching the next generation of athletes.
“I am a student of this beautiful sport,” Máté told Lagniappe. “My knowledge is greater than when I competed. I only tried to improve myself. The job of a coach is to put athletes in the best position to succeed.
“I wish I had known what I know now when I was physically able. Maybe my destiny was to learn and to share what I have learned.”
Even before arriving in America, Máté was establishing himself in the world of track and field. In 1998, he earned a bronze medal for the discus at the World Junior Championships.
He quickly made an impact at Auburn, winning both the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and NCAA outdoor titles in the discus throw as a freshman. Not only did he defend his titles the next season, he broke the collegiate record and was named the NCAA Track & Field Athlete of the Year.
The success continued that summer at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia. As a member of the Hungarian team, Máté would finish in 23rd place.
In 2001, he defended his SEC crown and was the runner-up at the NCAA meet. At the European Under-23 Championships, he took the bronze medal.
His final year at Auburn finished with a bang. He broke the NCAA record again in the discus before winning the SEC title for both the discus and shot put. Displaying his many skills, he qualified for the NCAA Championships in the discus and hammer throw. He capped the year competing at the World Championships in Paris with the discus.
Máté qualified with the Hungarian team for two more Olympics. In Athens, he finished 11th in the discus. In Beijing, he came in 13th. Along the way, he continued to compete at the World and European championships, eventually being ranked sixth by Track & Field News in 2007.
Having trained in Hungary following college, the couple moved back to Mobile after the 2008 Games. His goal was to qualify for a fourth Olympics.
“I was very lucky that I was very good friends with Paul Brueske,” Máté said of the University of South Alabama’s track and field coach. “He is a very strong supporter of throws. He opened the facility for me.”
During his training, Máté was injured. While he was recovering from the surgery, he knew he would not make it back for the next Olympics. It was time for the next phase of his life.
“I looked for another opportunity to use my talents,” Máté said. “I started coaching high school athletes. I worked with one and word got around. It was very small scale at first.”
In 2017, Máté and his wife made the decision that he should focus more on coaching. This is where Steve Schoenwald, who organizers the Mobile Challenge of Champions high school meets, comes back into the story.
“Steve and Paul were my very best friends from Mobile in 2001 when I came with Megan,” Máté said. “I went to a track meet and met them. I struck up a conversation.
“Steve help to introduce me to the track community. I worked a couple years with throwers at Spanish Fort High School. They got me good referrals.”
Máté has set up his trainings in Mobile at St. Luke’s Episcopal School Lower Campus at Azalea Road and Japonica Lane. Athletes train there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays in all four of the Olympic throws.
“I have male and female athletes ranging in age from 14 to 19,” Máté said. “I love to start with them in middle school, because they are more coachable at a younger age.”
Máté said athletes and their parents have different reasons for reaching out to him.
“Some just want their child to perform better and to learn a skill,” he said. “Others are looking to help them achieve college scholarships. Either way, I just want to cultivate more love and respect for the sport.”
At the height of his competitive career, Máté stood an impressive 6-foot-7 and weighed 290 pounds. While size can provide a decisive edge on the world stage, it is not the only contributing factor.
“I had the NCAA record for five years, and then lost it to a guy 6 feet tall,” Máté said. “Being a fundamentally correct thrower means so much. Just believing that you are capable of doing it is so important. This is where you need an enormous amount of trust between an athlete and a coach.”
Máté currently is working with about 16 athletes. Some are local stars such as Josiah Harry from Mobile Christian. “I love working with him,” Máté said. “He has set the state record in shot and disc. I can’t wait until 2024 when he has a chance at the Olympics.”
Máté also conducts clinics across Alabama and in other states. From a camp in Louisiana, Tzuriel Pedigo came to his attention. He has gone on to become the second-best high school javelin thrower in the world.
“I get as much enjoyment working with an eighth grader learning how to throw the javelin as I am working with an Olympic hopeful,” Máté said. “I want to build a culture of throwing in Mobile. I want it to be viewed as a primary sport like football or baseball and not just something to do while waiting for another season.”
For more information on the training or clinics, you can call 251-802-9777 or send an email to [email protected] You can follow him through his website, shotofdiscus.com, or on Instagram at @shot.of.discus.
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