From being on the verge of not pursuing a running career in college to becoming one of the strongest runners in the SEC, Vanderbilt senior Matthew Estopinal has shown a level of determination to his craft on par with the top competition.
As a computer science major, Estopinal manages to get his work done off the track as well. His academic achievements include placing on the Academic Honor roll in 2019 and 2020 as well as being on the CoSIDA Academic First Team All-District in 2020-21.
Estopinal has improved exponentially throughout his college career to become the student-athlete he is today. He emphasized that as a runner, the best way to improve is to remember why you are running. Estopinal runs everyday due to his love for the sport. When his improvement slowed in his earlier seasons, he remained determined and his efforts have truly paid off.
Estopinal credited his coaching staff for helping evolve his skills and his teammates—namely fellow seniors. Nick Laning has played a large role in Estopinal’s career. Lanning served as a role model for Estopinal in his early years of college. Now, as their final season comes around this spring, the two runners have built a strong bond and are pushing each other to be the most prepared they can be.
“I don’t think I ever would have accomplished nearly as much as I have in college if I hadn’t had him out ahead of me early on and with me this year,” Estopinal said. “I run with him twice a day most days. He’s one of my best friends. He was a huge standout early in our career, so it has always helped to have someone to look up to and try to catch up to.”
Estopinal tries to replicate that same exemplar mentality for his underclassman teammates that he once had, heading into practice everyday with a serious and positive mindset. He does his best to position the team for success.
“The things that you do carry a lot of weight just because the freshmen look to see what the seniors do to inform them of what they should do,” Estopinal said.
Training with enthusiasm helps show these young student-athletes the passion involved in being a successful runner and the importance of following along with the plan in practice. As an upperclassman, Estopinal displays a strong image for the freshman. He knows he needs to constantly show energy to encourage teammates to match the same intensity in practice that he displays.
Estopinal and the team have been striving to improve during their offseason, and they have been able to due to new fitness tactics implemented by the team’s new strength training. Injuries have been a major setback to the runners on the team, and they hope to decrease the rate of injuries with these new techniques.
“We have gotten much better with strength training as we began lifting three times a week,” Estopinal said. “This extra strength provides more confidence for our runners as the mileage increases. This summer I was able to run the most miles I have ever run, at 90 miles a week.”
Strength coach Tyler Clarke is well regarded amongst the team, and his commitment to helping the athletes build strength to help injury prevention is valued by the group. This training implementation has paid off for Estopinal and his teammates.
This season Estopinal has put up impressive results. His strong placements include 25th overall at the 10k NCAA South Regional Championships, 15th overall at the 8k SEC Championships, and second place at the 8k Commodore Classic. Throughout the four 8k events this season, Estopinal has consistently improved every meet, cutting his time down by 48 seconds since the first of the four meets.
The Vanderbilt cross-country team endured a coaching change that has made a difference in the way Estopinal approached his style of running. New head coach Althea Thomas brought in Michael Porter to coach distance running under her supervision, and Estopinal has enjoyed learning from the former assistant coach at Kentucky.
“I really like the training we do, and Coach Porter is very methodical. He runs the numbers and it helps a lot when he has done the math and research. He has done the work and put it out there for me,” Estopinal said. “Going into a race I know I have done this in practice, so I know what I am capable of and just worry about executing.”
As Porter was taking on the role of becoming a new coach here at Vanderbilt, having an athlete like Estopinal was a relief.
“He makes things easy. In terms of doing what is asked, being a leader, a frontrunner for us, and an example of working hard for the younger guys to see,” Porter said of Estopinal. “He is a good kid who’s very coachable. So it’s been easy transitioning to coach somebody like him.”
It is clear Estopinal feels more comfortable as a runner with the new methods Porter has implemented and he has less of a mental burden before meets as he puts his trust in Porter, knowing he has taken care of the logistics.
Estopinal has progressed a long way since his freshman year and with just a few months of competition in the track and field season left in his Vanderbilt career, don’t be surprised if he continues to improve.