Pride of the Lions

Matt McWilliams

Matt McWilliams

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Alumnus racking up big wins at marathons, half Ironmans

Matt McWilliams ’16 attacked his first half Ironman event with such intensity that he needed intravenous fluids after he finished.

“It was the toughest event I had ever competed in,” he said of the race, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13-mile run. “I pushed myself until I was passing out and ended up needing an IV after I finished. A couple of weeks later, I signed up to do the same race the next year. I was hooked.”

Four years later, McWilliams, 25, isn’t just competing in half-Ironman events, he is winning them. He won the Ironman 70.3 Muskoka in Huntsville, Ontario, last July and followed it up with another first-place finish at the Ironman 70.3 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September. His success is no surprise to McWilliams’ former cross-country and track coach, Greg Cooper.

“Matt is an incredibly determined and hardworking athlete,” he said. “Give him a task and tell him he can’t do it, and he will work harder than anyone you’ve ever seen to prove that he can. He was a leader on the team, in both words and action. Never did I have to wonder if Matt was working hard. I probably had to hold him back more than anything.”

When Cooper did let him go, though, McWilliams ran like an Olympian. Actually, faster than an Olympian.

“In his senior year, Matt ran a 1500 meter race in 3:48.73,” Cooper said. “That summer, Matt Centrowitz won the gold medal in the 1500 meter at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with a 3:50:00. Two seconds slower.” \

McWilliams, who earned a degree in aerospace engineering and a minor in physics, currently works as a materials engineer at Beaumont Technologies in Erie.

When he’s not working, he’s working out. The Ironman wins don’t come easy, you know.

“I usually only take one or two days off a month,” McWilliams said. “Weekly, I swim five times, bike four times and run six times, so I have to double up some days. It can be hard to fit it all in, but the company I work for has a gym and an endless pool so I can get a workout in at lunch.”

Add in regular strength training, and the hours McWilliams spends training equates to a part-time job.

He doesn’t plan to make it a full-time job anytime soon.

“I earned my pro card at a race in Texas this year, but I decided to continue racing as an amateur,” he said. “Depending on how the next year goes, I might turn pro in 2020. I also think I’m going to try to qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon distance next year. These two goals will keep me training through another Erie winter.”

He’s off to a great start.

This past fall, he completed his second marathon in Hamilton, Ontario. He won it, finishing the 26.2-mile race in 2:24:04. The Olympic qualifying time is 2:19:00. Can he take five minutes off?

“I wouldn’t bet against him,” Cooper said. “He’ll do it. And when he does get to the world stage, he’ll be the kind of guy who will spend an hour signing autographs for kids because he is a young man with a great heart and character, too.”

He’s a winner, that’s for sure.