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News / Sports / Prep Sports

Prairie senior Kara Mattson has big goals for first full track season

She has some of state’s best marks in hurdles, jumps and sprint events

By Will Denner, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 28, 2022, 8:30pm
4 Photos
Prairie's Kara Mattson pauses for a moment to pose for a portrait at the Tiger Invite on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Battle Ground High School.
Prairie's Kara Mattson pauses for a moment to pose for a portrait at the Tiger Invite on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at Battle Ground High School. (Joshua Hart/For The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The concept of “hard work pays off” sounds straightforward in theory, unless the end result of that hard work is unresolved.

For the past few years, Prairie senior Kara Mattson has dedicated herself to being a full-time track and field athlete, building a base while adding skills to her arsenal, even though opportunities to test them have been few and far between.

Yet when she competes in the hurdles, jumps or sprints, Mattson often dazzles.

Mattson was on a boundary exception as a freshman, which limited her to competing in sub-varsity events, then missed out on the 2020 season due to the pandemic. As a junior, she finished first in every event she competed in, culminating in a clean sweep at the Greater St. Helens League district meet of the 100- and 300-meter hurdles, as well as the long jump and triple jump.

“She won literally every event she stepped onto the track or field — that’s unheard of,” Prairie coach Kawan Martin said. “And some of those events weren’t even her own. If you want to talk about rarity, it’s her.”

Because no state championships were held in 2021, this spring marks the first (and last) full high school season Mattson will take part in. The senior and her coaches see the next couple months as the moment her hard work finally pays off — a moment several years in the making before she joins the University of Montana track and field program next season.

“This is definitely a big year,” Mattson said. “I’d say I have some pretty big goals, but I’m mostly focused on just enjoying it because it is the last year. Just taking my time and enjoying it.”

During a recent afternoon on the Prairie High School track while reflecting on her high school career, Mattson said she doesn’t feel like an upperclassmen. Understandably so, given how the last few seasons have played out.

Mattson transferred from Evergreen Public Schools into Prairie (part of Battle Ground Public Schools) to start high school. Transfer rules meant she couldn’t compete in varsity events, invitationals, districts or state as a freshman.

While the 2020 season was up in the air, Mattson, then a sophomore, and her dad, Kevin, were at the Heritage High School jump pits one day in May. They noticed a small group of athletes — including Evergreen’s Grace Twiss and Madison Hubbard of Camas — training nearby with Marinella Jiganie, an associate head coach at Clark College.

“I love my dad to death, but my dad is not a coach for track,” Mattson said. “My dad, I didn’t want him to do it, but he walked up to her and he was like, ‘Hey, are you Marinella?’ And it just spiraled into, ‘Bring her in. I’d love to train with her.’”

Mattson started meeting with Jiganie twice a week, then built up to four or five times per week training through the summer with the rest of the group.

Looking back on that time, which led into her dominant junior year, Mattson said she was glad to continue training even while there were still questions about when a season would happen. She realized training then while many others weren’t would put her in an even better position when competition resumed.

“I was about to, not give up, but just stop training, because I wasn’t sure if we’d have that season,” Mattson said. “But then I improved so much from that, so it was a really lucky experience being with her. I don’t think I would’ve got a different coach if I hadn’t met her then.”

Mattson describes herself a visual learner, and it’s been a key component of her mental makeup.

Martin takes video of Mattson practicing the long jump, for example, to show her a detail that she can improve on. Mattson will then mimic and feel it herself to learn how her body reacts when going through a subsequent jump.

That process goes hand in hand with something Martin calls sports imagery, or the ability to visualize events step by step.

“That’s the biggest piece, because a lot of kids don’t have that at her age,” Martin said.

Last week, the night before Prairie opened its season against Evergreen, Mattson pictured riding the jump as she took off. The next day, something clicked. Mattson landed a distance of 18 feet, 4 inches, a personal best of 5 inches and just a few inches away from Prairie’s school record.

“When I got up to the actual board and hit it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually riding the frickin’ jump,’” Mattson said. “It actually kind of scared me a little bit, not going to lie. I looked back at it and (thought), that wasn’t a good jump. Then they pulled it out and were like, ‘18-4’ and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Whoa.’”

Based on recent results, Mattson said the long jump is likely her favorite event. She calls the 300 hurdles “a pain in the butt sometimes,” and enjoys the 100 hurdles, though believes she has the most room for improvement in that event.

She only started doing the triple jump last season when Prairie was looking for ways to score more points in a meet against Kelso. Mattson picked it up quickly, in part by watching Kelso standout Josie Settle.

Although rules limit athletes to four events in a given meet, Mattson will also sometimes approach Prairie coaches on the week of a particular meet and lobby to compete in another event, eager to see how she stacks up against another athlete.

Last weekend at Battle Ground’s Tiger Invite, she ran the 200 meters and finished third against Hubbard of Camas and Skyview’s Dea Covarrubias in first. Mattson’s time, 26.41 seconds, currently ranks second in the state for Class 3A. She also has the top time in the 100 hurdles and the second-best mark in the long jump and triple jump.

“She kind of structures her mental focus around the best competition in all events,” Martin said. “We let her kind of choose the best way for her to be competitive, and she honestly has really good approaches to it.”

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Since signing with Montana on Nov. 10, Mattson has also expressed interest in the heptathlon, though she’ll wait to try more events like the shot put, javelin and 800 until after this season.

During the last few springs around May when a typical season would end, there’s another image Mattson visualizes: competing at the state track and field meet.

The thought didn’t cross her mind earlier in past seasons, “because I have to work before I can actually get there,” she said. But when they’ve ended, or been canceled altogether, without a trip to state, Mattson thinks about what the experience would be like.

“It would mean so much,” Mattson said. “Because here, I do win my events, but I know there’s another level. So actually being able to go to those meets where the girls are amazing would just be so cool to watch, even if I wasn’t competing. But knowing I’m able to compete there, it just shows that the work that I put into it is finally paying off and I can actually get up to that level.”

After much anticipation, the hope is Mattson’s efforts are rewarded with the real thing later this spring.

“Long overdue for her,” Martin said. “I just want her to enjoy this. Because four years … I just want her to have fun.”