Van Mathias slowly contorted his angular frame down from his first place pedestal on the Class 6A state championship award stand as Beaverton head coach Judy Rusaw wrapped yet another gold medal around the junior's star's neck.
Mathias had turned the 6A state meet into a personal foray of velocity, precision and killer preparation, winning two state championships in the 100-yard backstroke and 100 butterfly, shattering a long-standing state record in the process. He was essentially the sole reason why Beaverton finished sixth in the team standings. Two state titles and a state record were rewarded with the Male Swimmer of the Meet distinction. Division One schools that had already inquired about Mathias' availability for the next level were sure to salivate once they saw his All-American times.
To some elite swimmers, such a day would be quickly dismissed as just another step toward the ultimate goal of college scholarships and lofty club team aspirations. High school swimming, to some of the stars competing for the illustrious club teams in the area, is more bore than gratification.
But as Rusaw shook her Mathias' hand at Mount Hood Community College with the scoreboard still blinking that astounding 48.1-second finish in the 100 fly, Mathias uttered a sentence that was both atypical of an elite talent, but completely compatible with the Beaver's character.
"He looked at me and said 'Wow, what an honor this is,'" Rusaw said. "I think that humility has carried him because he knows he has a special talent and he works really, really hard to impact that talent. He's very humble and appreciative of the gift that he has."
Rusaw was a club coach for eight seasons and saw up close how the high school scene doesn't have the same type of influence on the best area high school swimmers as it once did. Whether it's a fad amongst the club programs or individuals being stretched too thin between multiple meets and practices during the season, more and more upper crust competitors are electing to focus on their year-round clubs. Yet, Mathias has a huge sense of school pride when it comes to representing the orange and black on his skullcap. Asking Mathias about his own conquests and he'll quickly steer the conversation back toward the Beaver team, what the relays are capable of, how much practice they've been putting in together. With Mathias it's truly "we" before "I" in a sport that caters to the individual, not the team.
"I don't like being that guy that takes all of the credit for winning relays, winning individual events," Mathias said. "We have a great group of people out here cheering on the sidelines. We're a small team, but it's about the team. We all support each other. It's not just me. I don't like to see myself on this pedestal. I like to have others around me because I know it's not just me, it's coaches like Judy who have helped me so much along the way, family, friends, teammates."
For all his God-given talents and revered work ethic that makes him one of the best in the nation, Mathias puts the program before himself. He's the last person who wants to hear how great he is, carrying himself with a meekness that belies his superstar stature. When Mathias was being recruited by some of the nation's best programs, Rusaw said it was a more difficult process because her star pupil purely refused to boast about his singular ability.
"Nobody would ever know how good he is because he never tells them," Rusaw said. "He doesn't want to brag. He doesn't want to be a superstar, he just wants to be good at what he does. He loves the sport, loves being a part of a team. He has a great attitude that will carry him a long time. He's going to do the best he can with what he's been given."
After ripping up the Winter Junior Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 9, Mathias, against Rusaw's wishes to take a rest, was right back in the pool the following Monday morning at 5:30 a.m., knowing every other entrant in the Metro League was coming after him and his teammates. On Dec. 14 against Jesuit, Mathias anchored Beaverton's triumphant 200 medley and 400 free relays in addition to winning two individual races.
"Jesuit has nearly four times as many people as we do, but we always give them a run for their money," Mathias said. "Those relay wins are a collective effort. It's not just me. We have a solid group of guys stepping in after we lost a lot of our good seniors. Not only are we quality swimmers, but we're quality people, so we mesh really well together. It's not that we're just swimming fast, but we're also having a good time."
Khalil Eugenio, Justin Zhou and David Kraske joined Mathias on both teams to make up a duo of four-man units that could make noise both in Metro and at state, should Beaverton advance to the grand stage. Beating a team such as the Crusaders, who annually flood the relay races with 'A' finalists was a good first start.
"It's about willpower, just who wants it more," Mathias said. "I wouldn't say swimming against Jesuit is intimidating at all, it's more of a good time. We like to swim against those guys. It's a good rivalry."
Through the Multnomah Athletic Club team and head coach Gary Leach, Mathias received the necessary exposure to garner interest from a number of high-major D1 schools, including North Carolina State, Texas, Cal and Indiana University. Mathias took official visits to all four schools, but felt Indiana was the best place for him athletically and scholastically. The Hoosiers, who currently ranked No. 1 in the NCAA, also sport three United States national team coaches including one of the best sprinting coaches in Coley Stickles who will help groom Mathias for a possible run at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.
"It'll be good to branch out, see some new places, but more importantly swim fast," Mathias said.
At 6-foot-3 with albatross-like arms that envelop the pool and a strong, lean physique that can still pack on size and speed, Mathias hasn't hit his swimming peak, yet. That could come in the near future with high-level training regimens and calculated plans put together by renowned innovators such as Stickles, who was hired last spring.
"The nice thing about his situation is he still has room for growth and improvement," Rusaw said. "IU is going to take really good care of him."
Mathias' parents, Nancy and Chris, swam for Willamette University and helped instill a high level of hard work and industriousness that has stuck with their son through the highs and the lows of his career. During the season, Mathias says he practices seven or even eight times a week, often both early in the morning before the crack of dawn and after school. Whether he's whirling down Olympic-sized pools while his classmates are still sound asleep or sweating out a dry land work that strengthens his core and stabilizes his frame, Mathias is a willing worker who knows the only way to further refine his already refined skills is through the grubwork of the day-to-day.
"I definitely embrace the grind," Mathias said. "I like going in on those early mornings. As tiring as it is, at the end of the day you still feel pretty satisfied with yourself. All the training, you know it's going towards that end-all goal of winning and being the best version of yourself that you can be. Personally, that's what I want. I don't try to compare myself to other people."
Beaverton has relished systematic, consistent success in every sport from football to basketball to baseball, but not in boys swimming, so much. A once-dominant program that put up Metro banners high above the Beaverton pool back in the early 1990's, the Beavers' well ran dry until Rusaw took the reins.
Mathias made a commitment to Rusaw and the Beaver program during his freshman season and in return has flourished into one of the school's most decorated all-time athletes. He's a four-time Metro champion who burst into the district as a freshman and brought Beaverton into the state championship dialogue.
"The first time you see him swim, you know he has everything he needs to be successful," Rusaw said. "You can tell a swimmer when you see him and I just knew immediately he was going to be good.
"He's so efficient, it almost looks like he's loafing when he's really not. But what a blessing for Beaverton High School to have a representative in swimming. And it's been really good for us as a team, too. He really put Beaverton swimming back on the map."
Already the state record holder in the 100 fly, Mathias is close to breaking the 100 back record in his senior season, should he so choose. Truth be told, Mathias is such a diverse, all-around talent, he could win state in multiple events, and he has the times to back up that claim. His personal best in the 200 individual medley (1:48.7) would have won the 'A' final at state by more than three seconds last year.
Mathias' personal record in the 100 breaststroke (56.75) was hundredths of a second behind the state-winning 56.70 last season. And his top time in the 200 free would have been good for second overall at state. This is all on top of being the reigning state champ in the fly and back.
"I don't want to be a one-trick pony," Mathias said. "I like to swim all the events, and especially in practice, I like to work all around. Eventually, I'm going to get to the point where I specialize in one event, so I'm trying to keep my options open for now."
Mathias and Rusaw haven't finalized what specific events the future Hoosier will swim at the 2018 state meet this year, but if anything is certain it's Mathias has already cemented himself as a legend.
"It's invigorating, it felt really good, but it was also humbling," Mathias said.
"I don't think anybody in Beaverton will ever forget his name," Rusaw said. "I think he can go after a few more state records. We haven't decided what those will be yet, but I'm sure he'll get a couple more school records that'll be on the board for a long time."