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High School Rivals to championship teammates

Not many athletes can say they’ve medalled at a national competition in a sport they spontaneously started.  

Mike van der Poel and Matthew Coolen, old high school rivals, can. The two track and field stars have have both taken home a U Sports medal since they began running for Dalhousie University four years ago; van der Poel winning bronze for his 300-metre dash in 2017 and Coolen the gold for his 60-metre dash in 2018.            

They began making their mark before university, setting records when their high schools competed. Coolen ran for Halifax West High School while van der Poel ran for Cobequid Educational Center.  

“We ran against each other,” says Coolen. “It’s funny in hindsight that we were competitors against each other and now we’re teammates and on the relay team together.” 

Early days

Coolen began his track career when a junior high gym teacher invited him to try out for the school’s hurdles team.  

“I remember I had a gym class right before lunch hour and I forgot my pants in the gym, so I went back and all the hurdles were set up. That’s how it all started.” 

He went on to have Nova Scotia provincial records in the 60-metre hurdles, 100-metre hurdles and 200-metre dash and the 110-hurdles.  

van der Poel started track when he moved to Truro in 2011. “In gym class my teacher came up to me and asked if I liked running. I said ‘yeah sure why not’ and then there was a relay member that got injured. It was for the four by four, so they picked me because I said yeah sure. And that’s how I ended up running later on.” 

“It’s pretty surreal, I didn’t believe it for a long time,” says Coolen. “I was watching the time come up and I just, I thought I was close. When it popped up, I lost my mind.” 

an der Poel set provincial records in the 200 and 300-meter dash. Coolen and van der Poel say that nothing feels quite like a national title though. 

He says that in order to win the national title, he makes sure to go to practice and focus on each event individually, adding that he hopes to repeat the 2018 result by following the same training this season. The bronze medal won by van der Poel in 2017 left similar feelings. 

“It’s pretty overwhelming. The next morning when you wake up … it’s just amazing. It’s what we train for all year.” 

Thanks, coach

He advises runners to stay cool and live in the moment because overthinking can ruin performance. Both men agree that their success is due largely to their sprints coach Mike Bawol and hurdles coach Andrew Conrad. 

“We represent the work that our coaches put into us,” says van der Poel. “They are kind of in the background when we compete, and it looks like we did all the work, but it really isn’t. Our coaches’ program everything and we just execute it.” 

Coolen placed first nationally for the 60-meter dash and seventh for 60-meter hurdles, and van der Poel, nationally ranked third for 300-meters. They are preparing with their Tiger teammates for the AUS championships in Moncton February 22 and 23. 


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