It was a game of capture the flag that gave the kid away.
Vic Manson, who at the time was principal of Hume School, had set it up as an activity for his Grade 3-4 class.
He always played for the girls’ team, but the game was ruined by a boy who was too fast for anyone to catch.
“I couldn’t catch the little [guy],” says Manson. “He was quick and agile. Not to say I’m fast, but I’m not slow. I could catch a Grade 3 [student], but not him.”
Manson, who had a degree in physical education, knew athletic ability when he saw it. He encouraged the boy to try track and field, which he did two years later at an event in Trail.. “He cleaned up,” says Manson.
That was three years ago, and Matti Erickson has been running circles around the competition ever since.
At just 13 years old, Matti is a rising track star. The medals he’s collected in 2016 alone would be too much for his diminutive neck to hold.
An incomplete list of highlights (there are in fact too many to mention) include: three golds at the Junior Development Track and Field Championships; four golds and a provincial record at the B.C. Elementary Championships; four trips to the top of the podium at the Alberta Provincial Indoor Track Championships; and first place at the Nike Invitational cross-country meet.
Even events he doesn’t win still show how promising an athlete Matti is.
Earlier this month Matti finished sixth at the B.C. High School Cross Country Championship — not bad considering his competition was 250 other runners who were mostly a year or two older than he is.
“That’s pretty decent,” he says with a smirk.
He also doesn’t think other runners were surprised to be beaten by a younger athlete.
“I’m pretty sure that quite a few people know who I am more or less. In the running community there’s always a couple people you want to make sure you know about going into a race.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that the Ericksons are a family of athletes. His older brother Jacob, 16, is a former runner, while his 10-year-old brother Mitchell competes with Matti on the Kootenay Chaos track and field team and also takes part in hockey and baseball.
Their parents, Glenn and Irene Strucel, also used to run. Glenn doesn’t run anymore, not with hip replacements on both sides. But he’s happy to live vicariously through his kid’s accomplishments.
“Call it regrets, whatever,” says Glenn. “I never was able to pursue my dreams so it’s coming out through these guys. We don’t push, we just say, ‘That’s available to you. We’ll get you there if you want to join.'”
And because the kids are game, the family spends a lot of time on the road. Glenn estimates they do one competition every two or three weeks between April and November — enough to keep Matti competitive but not enough to burn him out.
At home he runs six days a week, usually at Lakeside Park and without music so he can focus on his heart rate and how he feels. “It’s actually pretty boring just running hours on end by yourself,” says Matti. “But you’ve got to do it if you want to succeed.”
The hard work is paying off.
When he went to Portland for the Nike Invitational in October, Matti was essentially unknown south of the border. The event was a three-kilometre race with over 400 Grade 6 to 8 runners. He entered hoping to finish in the top 10, but with 300 metres left he overtook three runners to cross the line in first.
“[Matti’s] got a kick like an ostrich,” says Glenn. “So at 400 metres out, if he’s within striking distance it’s game over.”
The family doesn’t talk much about races after they happen. Matti hangs out with his friends, goes to school at Trafalgar, and takes part in other sports like volleyball. He’s exceptional at running, but takes care not to let his talent define him.
“There’s a lot of other things that I could do. Running’s just there. …,” says Matti, who adds all the winning helps keep him interested. “Just to try to stay on top, that’s a lot of fun. Training isn’t fun, but going to the meets and seeing everyone there and how big it is, that’s pretty humbling.”
The Ericksons know how special Matti is as an athlete. They know how far he could go if he keeps running. But Glenn and Irene also try to make sure their son slows down. He’s still a kid, after all.
“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen,” says Glenn. “Right now we make sure [Matti] vacuums the stairs, cleans the toilet, eats his peas. All the stuff kids are supposed to do.”