Matthew Josa’s first real dip in the pool surprisingly came during someone else’s competition.
His older sister, Brittany, was competing in a meet at the local pool in their South Carolina neighborhood when three-year-old Matthew became so excited for her that he fell in the water while cheering.
“They had to stop the meet to pull me out, but the local club coach told my mom she needed to get me in the pool (as a competitor),” said Josa, who started swimming summer league at 6 but didn’t swim year-round until he was 15.
“I knew how to swim – we had a pool in our backyard – and I loved being in the water, so it was a good fit all the way around. And it was a great way for me to be around my friends and have a lot of fun.”
Homeschooled by his mom until graduating high school and starting college, Josa tried lots of sports – football, track, etc. – until he decided to focus on swimming as a teenager.
Although he was recruited by several Division I swim programs in high school, he chose to spend his first couple of seasons at nearby Queens College – a much smaller school and program with a rigorous academic agenda and strong Division II swimming program.
“Having been homeschooled, I felt I needed to attend a small college not far from home, and Queens College was the high school experience I didn’t get to experience in many ways,” said Josa, who won multiple NCAA titles and set numerous Division II records while helping Queens to a National Championship his sophomore season. “It was a great environment for me to grow as a person and as a swimmer.”
After completing his sophomore season, Josa made the decision to redshirt the next year to focus on and train for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Leading up to Trials, he also discussed other options for the next phase of his collegiate swimming and education. He knew if he wanted to continue to elevate his swimming – and grow as a person – he needed to move to a higher division program and school.
Once Trials were over – he had the fastest semifinal time but missed making the Olympic team with a sixth-place finish in the final – he decided a cross-country move to the University of California-Berkeley and opportunity to work with Dave Durden and his team of coaches was the best next step for him.
“I wasn’t quite ready to leave home after high school, so Queens being so close (he grew up in Fort Mill, S.C., a suburb of Charlotte) made sense,” said Josa, who joined the Bear program in the fall of 2016. “Eventually, I realized I needed more and was ready to expand my horizons and move to a bigger program. Transferring to Cal-Berkeley became my true college experience.
“The decision was all about growth in my swimming and education but also growth in who I am as a person. I’ve been so happy with my decision. I definitely know that I’m a different, better swimmer and person because of the experience. I’ve loved it.”
This week, Josa revisits the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships in Irvine – bringing back some tough memories from last year’s National meet.
The previous fall (2016) – his first at Cal – he suffered a broken wrist and hairline fracture in his lower vertebrae during a freak biking accident. The time out of the water recovering along with limited training when he was allowed back in the water affected his results in Indianapolis.
And then a few weeks before Phillips 66 Nationals, he ripped the bottom of his big toe off and required stitches in his foot – further complicating things and impacting his swims.
“It was a very weird year to say the least, but I learned a lot about myself as a person, swimmer and competitor that I am using to my advantage now,” he said. “I was definitely going through a swim crisis, but I’ve come through it, and I feel stronger and better than ever as a result.”
A few weeks after Phillips 66 Nationals, Josa competed at the U.S. Open and won the 100 fly – redeeming himself from his swims at Nationals and returning his name to the U.S. National team.
And as he looks ahead to what’s shaping up to be very competitive 50 and 100 butterfly events (he’ll also swim the 100 free) in Irvine, he said he knows he’s in a much better place this year – and he’s ready to take the next step in his swimming career.
“Going through all that I did over the last year helped me re-establish my love for the sport and reminded me why I’m doing this,” said Josa, who completed his swimming eligibility at Cal this spring hut has another year of classes to graduate in 2019. “When I think about where I was and where I am now, I’ve discovered where my place in life and swimming is and I’m much more content than I’ve been in years.
“It’s all been a hug time for personal growth for me. After NCAAs this spring, I took about six weeks off because I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue in the sport. But I believe this is what I’m led to do – and I want to be an inspiration for younger swimmers however I can.”