Exchange of Pace

Jan. 13, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Riding a fold-up scooter, backpack on his back, Matthias Uhrig looks like any other student as he walks the Georgia Tech campus.

Yet the 26-year-old native of Lossburg, Germany, already has a master’s degree in mechanical rngineering from the University of Stuttgart (words emblazoned on his backpack) and, come August, expects to be on the cusp of earning his second master’s degree in engineering, science and mechanics from Georgia Tech. It’s the reward of taking part in the Germany-Stuttgart Exchange/Work Abroad Program.

While it’s a lot of work on the academic side, Uhrig is embracing being part of the Georgia Tech community and being a student-athlete. Having been granted one year of eligibility, he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to extend his track career, performing for the Jackets in the triple jump.

It’s all on the level, as the first jump he takes for Georgia Tech will be his first as a collegian, even though his resume includes 2013 German Indoor Champion, ninth-place at the 2011 Summer World Universiade and second place in the 2011 German Championships.

“You don’t have eligibility in Germany,” said Uhrig. “It’s not like you have four or five years where you can compete for a college. It’s all on the club level. To compete for 10 or more years is common. There is no relation between sport and college.”

There is a relation between track & field and Uhrig’s family, however. Matthias’ father, Bernd, ran the 400 meters and competed in the long jump — a bit of an anomaly in Germany, as most athletes focus solely on one event — and his uncle, Karl Honz, who ran the 400, 200 and 4×400 relay for West Germany, was Germany’s national champion in the 400 meters. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, as the anchor leg of the relay, he came within 23/100s of a second of getting the team a bronze medal, running a 44.7.

Issues with his right patella tendon and even more difficult problems with his immune system, which led to two bouts with the Epstein-Barr virus and two rounds with pneumonia, assured Matthias that he would have no expectations of following in the footsteps of his uncle as far as reaching the Olympics. But nothing will stop him from making the most of the one go-round he’s been granted with Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech was always part of the equation.

“I had multiple offers of sports scholarships for schools in the U.S.; however, I never wanted to do a sports scholarship because my main focus always was my academics,” Uhrig said. “There was a joint-master’s established this year with Georgia Tech (and Stuttgart). There is a good relationship between those two universities. They offer a full academic scholarship for graduate students. I applied for it in Stuttgart and I was accepted and that’s how I came here.”

Adapting to the Yellow Jackets track team has proven as big an adjustment as any he’s faced in Atlanta. It started with the training regimen.

“Here when I came into the group, I realized the entire group is pretty strong. There are great athletes, the freshmen are pretty strong,” he said. “The combination between practice, strength training and how runs are included is slightly different than what I’m used to.

“The American way of practicing is different than the European way,” he continued. “We did a lot of short runs over there and here we do a lot of long runs, for example. Here we do a lot of jumps from shorter approaches and in Europe I did a lot of jumps from a higher speed in the approach. I did basically no upper-body workout when I trained in Germany, but here, upper body is kind of important. Those are perhaps the biggest changes.”

Uhrig will gladly travel as part of the Yellow Jackets when they heads to Birmingham, Ala., this Saturday for the Auburn Invitational. It beats the traveling he used to do simply to get to practice in Germany. He appreciates the convenience of being part of a major American college program.

“I drove 30 miles to the place I practice in Germany,” he said. “I think the athletes here don’t know how good conditions they find in order to compete at a high level. That’s not how it is all around the world. You have everything close together, you have a lot of coaches so it’s small groups. You even have a separation between strength coaches and your event coaches, which is great. [The track is] close to the classroom. You can figure out your personal schedule. That is not possible in Germany.”

While Uhrig, sees himself going back to Germany upon finishing up academically, which consists of two classes and a final thesis, he’s seeing nothing but the bright side of his time in the U.S. He won’t even complain about sharing an apartment with seven people or using most of the salary he draws from his job as a research assistant going toward rent and expenses.

“It’s not too expensive, it’s close to campus. The house could be nicer, of course, but as a student, you don’t have that high standards,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m satisfied with the place. It’s kind of a traditional thing that the exchange I’m in is always with three students from Stuttgart. The tradition is the old generation gives the housing to the new generation. That’s how I got the apartment.”

Uhrig has even gained an affinity for another U.S. tradition.

“I’m really into football now,” he said, admitting that watching the Yellow Jackets this past season fanned the flames to his passion. “I love how the athletics are focused in that sport. I really love watching. I think I missed one game. I’m not sure which one but there was a midterm right afterwards, so I missed that one.”

He doesn’t plan on missing a meet, regardless of how busy things get.

“The research part is the main workload. I have to do master thesis,” he said. “It hasn’t really started yet, but I expect to be in the lab all day, so the workload will be pretty high. I have a year of eligibility. So the plan is to compete in both seasons.”

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