Head man Ralph Spry and the rest of his Auburn coaching staff won't be looking for their star discus thrower to be doing any running for a stopwatch, but they will be counting on the senior to be a key contributor towards a run at the national title.
Last weekend, Mate broke his own NCAA record in the discus by throwing it 219 feet, nine inches and will be the heavy favorite to win the NCAA Championship in that event for the third time this June in Sacramento, Calif. In addition, the Tiger senior is training in two other events in hopes of scoring enough points to put the Tigers over the top in their quest for being number one.
"I am very excited about our team," Mate says. "We are really looking forward to performing at the national level to see what we are made of. I firmly believe we have a chance to win the national title. I am going to do everything in my power to help my team succeed and reach that dream and become the most successful team in Auburn history. I am glad that I have a chance to be a part of it."
Gabor Mate is by far the best discus thrower in Auburn history.
Jerry Clayton, who coaches the field events for the Tigers, says that Mate is the type of athlete he feels fortunate to coach. "Only a few guys like him come along in your coaching career," Clayton says. "He is a world class competitor. He is highly motivated to be successful athletically and academically. He has a great chance of being a three-time NCAA individual champion and he has won numerous academic awards."
Clayton notes that Mate's decision to redshirt during the 2002 outdoor season and concentrate on the 2003 outdoor campaign to help the Tigers make a run at the national title shows that helping the AU track program succeed is a high priority for the Auburn senior.
Mate's coach says that he and his star pupil are still tweaking the senior's technique in the discus looking for extra inches and feet. "I have no doubt he can throw it 220 feet or more regardless of the wind conditions," Clayton says. For the record toss last weekend, Mate was able to throw into a headwind. While a headwind will slow a runner, it is good for a discus thrower because it helps keep the discus in the air longer.
Mate is also working at perfecting his technique in the shot put and the hammer throw. He has a personal best of 61 feet, seven inches in the shot and did that indoors. With the help of strength training, he hopes to have enough power to score at nationals. "I believe I need to throw it 62 or 63 feet at NCAAs--somewhere in that range--to score there," Mate says. "In the hammer, I believe I have a better chance of scoring in that event than the shot. We are doing preparations for that. We are trying not to emphasize it too much because there is a big risk of injury in that event because there is so much pressure on the spine." He won the event at the prestigious Mt. SAC Relays as a junior.
Clayton says that Mate should be able to score points at the SEC meet in all three events, but has work to do to be a scorer at the national level in more than one event, especially in the shot. "He would need to improve his personal best at least two feet in the shot," says Clayton, who notes that he thinks Price has a better chance in the hammer. However, both the discus and the hammer competitions will be contested the same day at the NCAA Championships and if the coaches decide that trying to do two events that day will keep him from reaching his potential in the discus, they might have Mate concentrate on only his speciality.
Auburn has been ranked either first or second nationally since the outdoor season started. The Tigers finished a surprising second at the indoor nationals, even though the team has been built primarily as an outdoor oriented scoring squad.
"This could be the best team ever on the Plains," Mate says. "We are happy that we have been able to bring in all of these incredible athletes here who can perform at the level they have been performing."
Mate has helped head coach Spry build the Tigers into a Top 10 program since he arrived as freshman in 1999 from Bekescsaba, Hungary, where he was second in the 1998 World Junior Championships. It didn't take Mate long to establish himself as the best discus thrower in Auburn history. In his first meet as a Tiger, his throw of 192 feet, 1 inch broke a 45-year-old record of 180 feet, eight inches set by 1952 Olympian Jim Dillon. He rewrote the record books several more times as a freshman on his way to winning the NCAA Championship with a throw of 202 feet feet, 1 inch. His best throw of the year was 202-7 at the Reebok Invitational at Georgia Tech.
He stepped up his performance level significantly as a sophomore, winning the NCAA title with an impressive throw of 215 feet, 8 inches. He was named Track And Field News National Collegiate Athlete of the Year for a season that included an NCAA record throw of 219 feet, 6 inches in San Diego. He was back in the same city this past weekend where he broke the record and was in the zone again this year.
"That was an awesome feeling," he says of his throw that sailed three inches past his old record. "I was so glad that I was finally able to beat my personal best. That was my number one goal this year. It happened to be the NCAA record, too, so I am very pleased with that."
Mate notes that the weather and the competition in San Diego helped him break the record. "They were close to ideal," he says. "Sometimes it is a little cold or not windy enough, but this meet was as close to ideal conditions as I have ever had. There was a nice headwind that is required to have your best throws. We had great competition. I got to compete against Olympians and world champions. I was very pleased with how I threw, how well the whole meet was organized and that I was able to go there and compete."
Mate's throw was the second best in the world this year and puts him closer to moving into the range to compete for Olympic medals in 2004. As a junior in 2001, he was runnerup at the NCAA meet with a toss of 205 feet, five inches. Last spring, he redshirted during the outdoor season so he could come back as a fifth-year senior on a team that would have a legitimate chance to win the NCAA title.
Right now, it is looking good for the Auburn senior to win another individual national title. "I am throwing the discus 17 or 18 feet farther than anybody in college and I am going to try to keep that going," Mate says. "The shot and the hammer are very different. I have lots of competition in those events."
Mate will be making his final appearance at home as a Tiger this weekend in the Auburn Invitational at the Wilbur Hutsell Track and Field. He doesn't need to throw the discus anymore to qualify for nationals, but plans to do it anyway. "I am going to throw the shot and discus in this home meet to show the fans and the people who are interested in the sport how we are getting it done," he says.
The important meets coming up for the Tigers are the SEC Championships May 15-18 in Knoxville, Tenn., and the new NCAA Regionals, which are set for May 30-31 in Columbus, Ohio. For the first time, the country is divided into four regions and the top five finishers at each event move on to the NCAA Championships that will be held June 11-14 in Sacramento.
"There won't be any point to throw the discus at the regional qualifying meet because I should be the No. 1 seed," Mate notes. That would get him into the field with an at-large bid. "This format could help me in the hammer and shot put since they have increased the number of competitors they are taking," Mate says. "I may not have better distances than some of the others in those events, but I may be able to beat them head to head."
Gabor Mate is shown at the 2000 NCAA Championships at Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University, where he won the national title with a stadium record throw of 215 feet, eight inches.
Mate is taking advantage of his days at Auburn. He is a serious student who is a double major in finance and economics and will continue to train at AU after his senior season while he finishes his degree work. He will also stay busy with meets scheduled in Europe this summer, including the World Championships in Paris. After that, the goal is to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. He represented Hungary in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia where he was 15th in the discus. He will have a chance to do much better than that in Athens.
"Next year is a huge because it is an Olympics year," says Mate. It is really big for the Auburn senior because it won't take much improvement for him to be in the hunt for medals. He estimates that a throw in the 225 to 230-foot range will win in Athens. "It is hard to come up with an exact number because it depends on the conditions," Mate says.
The Tigers have finished fourth, third and 10th in Mate's three seasons as a competitor at the outdoor NCAA Championships and were 11th last season when he redshirted. With Mate leading the way, the Tigers have a real chance of being the next Auburn team to breakthrough and win a national title.