The young West Aussie is blowing up
It says a lot for Matt Ramsden’s stock that his debut national championship win in the 5,000m in Sydney was greeted with barely a raised eyebrow by athletics fans and commentators. Ramsden himself didn’t even celebrate as he crossed the finish line.
For occasional fans of the sport or those on the periphery, Ramsden is still a bit of an unknown character. He hasn’t yet reached the heights of Stewy McSweyn, nor has he been to the Olympics. Being based in Perth, he’s out of the spotlight as well. But for those who follow the sport closely, it’s not a matter of if Matt Ramsden will take Australian athletics by the scruff of the neck, it’s a matter of when.
For now, Ramsden is banking experience and bagging accolades with the cool, easy confidence of someone who knows where they’re headed.
Back in Sydney, as the race broke apart around halfway there was a clear front pack from which the winner would come. Two-time Olympian in the 5,000m Dave McNeill, 1500m royalty Ryan Gregson, Jack Rayner, finalist in the Rio Olympics 5,000m Brett Robinson, and Ramsden. With 4 laps to go, and then 3 laps to go, the group was largely still intact, and it became obvious that Ramsden would be crowned the winner. Inexperienced as he may be in the 5,000m, speed is speed, and when the bell was rung he moved up onto the shoulder of then leader Robinson, and glided past him with 250m to go.
“I knew Brett would be the one to put the hammer down in the last km, but when it was left late - 600m to go before the pace picked up, I knew I could handle it. When he did make the move and I was able to stay with it, I knew I could probably hammer the last 300m and get the win.
You always have doubts when the pace picks up - you don’t feel great but then you settle and it feels ok. Sometimes that period where it doesn’t feel good only lasts 10-15 seconds, but I’ve had races where it lasts for 2 laps, and you never settle. But in that race it was just a short period.”
And as for not celebrating when he crossed the line? Ramsden has too much respect for the people that got him there.
“I don’t really like celebrating on my teammates. We (Melbourne Track Club) filled the top 5, and I think it's a bit over the top to be flexing on the guys who got me to where I am.
It is my first open national title, but there’s a lot bigger things to do this year, so I see it as a stepping stone.”
It’s not overstating it to say Ramsden has gone from boy to man in the last couple of years - at least in the Melbourne Track Club pecking order. We now see Ramsden stepping out of the large shadows cast by athletes like Gregson, Robinson, and McNeill, and standing on start lines as a legitimate option to win. It’s a big selling point for young athletes when looking to join a group - train with the best and you might get dragged up to their level.
“I remember going to my first international race in LA. We were coming down to LA from Laguna and I remember sitting in the car thinking ‘wow, I’m the worst athlete here by a good 4 seconds’. I’d just come 6th at World Juniors, I was getting compared to Craig Mottram, and I’m sitting there feeling like a little ant. I realised that if I can keep up in training I'm going to race well. I get so much confidence just being around this group.”
If you’ve ever heard Ramsden speak about MTC, you would know how grateful and proud he is to be part of the group. In a time where young athletes seem to take everything less and less seriously, Ramsden speaks about the group in a forthright and honest manner.
“Joining MTC was a blessing for me - I chose not to go to college and it felt like a huge opportunity I was given by Nic. I was away from home being over here in Melbourne and the guys in this group took me in like a brother. If I was short on money they would buy my lunch, I remember if I was struggling with injury Grego would take me to the gym. Gen was like a mother figure - she taught me about diet and other things. When I speak about MTC I try to speak with the respect that they deserve; these guys will be friends for life.”
Not a lot of people can say 2020 was a big year for them, and while Ramsden would have loved a trip to Tokyo, settling for a trip to Monaco in August to pace Joshua Cheptegei to a new WR in the 5,000m was a nice consolation. Of course, no athlete grows up dreaming of pacing other people to their goals, but for Ramsden it’s another layer of experience, another start line, another memory he can draw from at some point throughout his career.
In October, Ramsden was back in front of Cheptegei, this time in Valencia to pace a 10,000m WR. When we think of these world record assaults in recent years, it’s nice to know Australians are always involved - Collis Birmingham pacing for Eliud Kipchoge at Nike’s Breaking:2 event in 2017, to Jack Rayner being on course in Vienna as Kipchoge went 1:59:40 in 2019, to Ramsden’s role in Cheptegei’s records.
“I’ll be on my deathbed still telling stories about that. Not many people get to be involved in a world record, and I got to pace 2 of them in a couple of months, during a pandemic!"
To play a small part in that history is amazing. I remember jogging around Valencia with Joshua, we did a mini session and on the cool down I could see he was quite nervous. So I thought I would chat to him and see if i could ease his nerves or take his mind off it. We were talking about where he trains in Kapchorwa (Uganda) and I asked him what the track was like. He said it wasn’t very good - ‘the back straight has a hill in it and the home straight is downhill. It’s a single lane of dirt’. I asked him how quick he thought he could run a 10k there - at over 2,000m altitude, and he said ‘probably 27:30’. That blew me away.”
I ask Ramsden about what it means for him, apart from playing a role in history. Is this in fact something he can draw on throughout his career, or is it something he’ll now forget about until his competitive days are done?
“Anytime you’re put in a new situation like that, it will make you better. Going into the national 1500m in a few weeks, it’s one of the biggest races of my life, but I won’t be more nervous than I was in Valencia.
I think doing things like Monaco and Valencia last year will definitely make me a better athlete in the long run.”
In January, Ramsden lined up for a 1,500m race in Perth. There would be little competition that night, but still a hearty crowd gathered. It wasn’t so much about who would win, as it was what-would-happen. Sure enough, with thanks to pacing from Matt Smith and Luke Burrows, Ramsden ran 3:34.97 - an Olympic qualifier. You get the sense the Western Australian athletics community are extremely proud of Ramsden, and Ramsden equally proud of his home state. It’s almost poetic that Ramsden ran the Olympic qualifier there in front of friends and family - the very people he’ll be representing in Tokyo later in the year.
“That has been a dream since I was a kid. I wanted to qualify for a major championship in Perth. There’s a myth that you can’t run fast in Western Australia. I wanted to run quick over 1500 and I managed to do it with two of my best mates.
I told Nic I wanted to do it and he encouraged me to have a crack. I called him a few days out and told him the pace I was asking my pacers for and he thought it was maybe a bit quick. I asked them for a 1:52 so I could run as close to 3:32 as possible. 1:52 was a little tough for them but to still run the qualifier was everything.
It’s honestly one of the happiest days of my life. To run the Olympic standard in front of friends and family was amazing.”
Of course, an Olympic qualifier isn’t the same as a spot on the Olympic team, and Ramsden will have more work to do over the coming months to lock in his spot for Tokyo. Indeed, to make Australia’s 1,500m squad for Tokyo might be the toughest ask in athletics right now. Stewy McSweyn, Olli Hoare, Ryan Gregson, Luke Mathews, Jordy Williamsz, and others will all fancy their chances, and Ramsden deserves his place in the conversation.
I put to him that this might be the first year he’s been seriously mentioned as a potential National 1500m champ.
“I’ve always gone to Nationals to win, and even now there’s probably not a lot of people who think I can, but it’s more of a reality for me now than ever. If I come worse than 2nd at Nationals I see it as a complete failure on my behalf.
There’s pressure going into Nationals, but nothing I can’t handle.”
Come Paris in 2024, we might very well see Ramsden excelling at the 5,000m - but not yet. While we often group athletes like McSweyn and Ramsden together, sometimes it’s worth remembering Ramsden is 2 years younger than McSweyn.
“If I had to choose right now what to run at the Olympics I would choose the 1500m. I just think that’s my best chance at making a final. The 5,000m right now is so tough, you have to be sub 13 or you’re no chance."
"I do think in maybe 3 years I’ll be more of a 5k guy, once my strength fully develops. I just need to do as many 5k’s and 3k’s as possible now so that when I am good enough, I’ve got a heap of experience.”
I tell Ramsden a story of a conversation I had with Nic Bideau in mid 2020. I was asking Nic about comparisons between Stewy McSweyn and Craig Mottram - it’s a logical comparison based on ability, but I wanted to know if the two were similar in their approach. Nic responded by telling me that Ramsden was a lot like Mottram - both raced with a chip on their shoulder, like they always had a point to prove.
“I’ve spoken to Grego about it before. The way I explain it is imagine if you’re in the last 300m of a race and someone comes past you. I asked Grego what goes through his mind in that moment and he speaks about trying to pick up as many spots as he can and move up. I take it personally. I want to kill that person, I chase them like I want to fight them.
I’m definitely a different person on the track and off. Off the track I’m completely calm but when I step on the track I get feisty.”
Matt Ramsden is one of the athletes I’m most often asked about. ‘What is he like’, or ‘How good will he be’, are the common questions. The first question I can answer - he’s a thoughtful, respectful, hard worker with impeccable manners, who loves his team and those around him. Each time I speak with him I learn something new about him - I didn’t realise he was studying law, or that he has a group of friends back in Perth that he coaches, from sub-elite runners who want to be pros, to mates who just want to run fast after the working day is done (on that, he says “I like having those guys do our sessions in Perth. Even guys who are 20 minute 5km runners, because I learn a new perspective on running from them”).
And as for the second question, ‘how good will he be?’ We’re starting to get a better understanding of that. I have a feeling in the next couple of years we’ll be talking about Ramsden the way we talk about McSweyn and Jess Hull.