James Sullivan has been chatting to one of Australia’s great ambassadors of athletics, 2008 World Indoor Champion, Tamsyn Lewis Manou, who gives an honest account of both her positive and negative experiences in the sport.
Tamsyn Lewis Manou is an elite athlete from Melbourne, Australia, who specialises in the 400m and 800m. She claimed the gold medal in the 800m at the 2008 World Indoor Championships in Valencia, Spain. She has competed in three Olympics, narrowly missing out on a place in the 800m final at the Sydney Games. She was a member of three consecutive Commonwealth Games 4x400m relay gold medal winning teams from 1998 to 2006. Her 800m PB of 1:59.21 ranks her second on the Australian all-time list after Charlene Rendina (1:59.0). She ranks 12th on the Australian all-time rankings in the 400m (51.44) and 9th in the 400m Hurdles (56.27).
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Tamsyn: My first athletics experience was in primary school when I made the school team for districts.
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Tamsyn: I looked up to both my parents who used to compete in athletics. I used to love going down and watching my dad train on Sunday mornings at the dog track next to Olympic Park. I also looked up to my brother who was the fastest in our primary school which I thought was pretty cool!
James: At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games you narrowly missed out on a place in the 800m final. Can you describe the experience of competing in the world’s greatest sporting event in front of your home crowd?
Tamsyn: It is a memory I will never forget. I always thank my lucky stars I had the opportunity to compete in a home Olympics. Not many athletes get that chance and for me it was as special as you could imagine it would be. I roomed with Catherine Freeman, which was just as good an experience as the racing was. I was in the first heat of the first event of the whole track and field program so it was pretty intense and nerve wracking but amazing at the same time to have so many Aussies cheering so supportively. I was disappointed to miss the final by 3/100ths as I gave everything I had and ran well tactically, so at least I had no regrets. I’m upset looking back that drug cheats were in the final though as I would have loved to run in that final.
James: In the years following the Athens Olympics you suffered a significant drop in sports funding with some critics referring to you as an underachiever? How much of a challenge was this period of your career and how did you support yourself financially during this time? In general do you feel athletics in Australia gets its fair share of funding or can more be done to help the sport develop?
Tamsyn: I’m not sure how to answer this one as people shouldn’t believe everything they read and the question is untrue as I have spent the majority of my career as a self-funded athlete. When funded it has been towards airfares/accommodation or car hire! I have never had a massive issue with this though as I understand the level of funding in our sport is a reflection of the level of interest the community has in it. I sometimes have issues with the governing body’s choice of distribution as it hasn’t always been transparent and fair in terms of events like 100m, 200m 400m 800m and 1500m, which are more difficult to be world class at as they have far more depth in them. I think this question shows the delusion that exists in terms of funding and the lack of transparency, which leads to questions like this being asked. The majority of my career has been self-funded through working whilst I have been home. I am grateful to the people in my support network that have helped me and allowed me to be an athlete for so long. Others don’t have such great networks and have had to retire a lot earlier so they can survive. So yes there is a lot more that can be done on the funding issue so that we don’t lose talented athletes too soon. I think it would be very interesting to see exactly how the government money is distributed through Athletics Australia (AA) from the top – CEO, head coach, support staff, etc. The sport should after all be mainly about the athletes.
On the other part of this question, I don’t listen to the comments of those I don’t respect. So if I was called an underachiever I am tipping it was from those who didn’t see my training and sacrifices or know the ups and downs I was going through to be the best I could be. My question to those who called me an underachiever would be what are their credentials and knowledge of me to make such derogatory remarks? As an athlete for the past 20 years I have been at the top of my events in Australia no matter whether injured or 100% and I have been competitive on the world stage so if they believe this is underachieving they must be super humans!
James: At the 2008 World Indoor Championships in Valencia you shocked the world by winning the gold medal in the 800m? Can you put this experience into words?
Tamsyn: This was a truly satisfying race. I had worked hard, sacrificed a lot and deserved this win. I will always remember how much work I put in on the training track to get this title. I will always be grateful to everyone; my coach Justin and my past coaches (Neville Sillitoe, Peter Fortune, Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe, Roy Boyd), my family, my friends, and everyone who ever sponsored me or helped me out because they enabled me to have this memory that I will always cherish. Standing on the top of the podium I felt incredibly proud of what hard work and dedication can bring. I will always remember that day and no matter what is said I was a world champion in the 800m. This is something that no one can ever take away from me.
James: There are currently no indoor tracks in Australia and so most athletes in the country are not familiar with some of the specifics of indoor racing. Can this be a challenge for Australian athletes come international competition?
Tamsyn: Indoor racing is tough as the track is banked and it is incredibly rough. I think it would be awesome for Australia to have an indoor track but again it has to be financially viable. If our sport can attract crowds again then maybe the government would see the benefit in having one also. I think it would be of great benefit for tactical practice on the indoor world stage. However we have to have a federation that is also willing to send a bigger team to the indoor meets. My coach had to write a letter and convince AA to let me go to the 2008 World Indoors as even though I had qualified they didn’t want to send me.
James: At the 2008 Olympic Games you competed in both the 400m and 800m, two very different events and generally accepted to be the hardest double to achieve. In what way did you approach training for these two events at once? Do you believe it is possible for an athlete to compete for an Olympic medal in both events at the one Games?
Tamsyn: I didn’t have to change my training at all. I am a 400/800 runner. Both my events compliment each other as I am a fit 400 runner and a quick 800 runner. When I am at my best in one I tend to be at my best in the other. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask as long as the timetable is like it was in London, not Beijing. My coach and I made the right decision though in Beijing to try the double as on the training track leading in I did a time trial in sub 51 hand timed in Darwin and the women’s 800m was being won on the circuit in 1.54!! I had a better chance of doing well in the 400 at Beijing with the way the events had gone. I ran well in my 800 heat running a 1.59, then the next morning unfortunately I tried too hard in my 400 and ran well below what I was capable of that day, running 52.2 and missing the semi-final by one spot. That 400 was perhaps the most disappointing run of my career because I should have done better. I know I made the right decision by running both.
James: With regards speed endurance what do you believe to be the key sessions when training specifically for the 400m?
Tamsyn: I think a 400m key session is anything with short recovery at a high quality, such as 4 x 300’s off 4 minutes, trying to keep them all in sub 40 seconds. Hill repetitions are always great, we do a 150m hill with short recovery then Plyometrics. Plyos are vital in 400m and 800m training. 5 x 60 m reps with 25 sec, 20 sec, 15 sec and 10 sec recovery then 2 min and 4-5 sets is another good track session. When it’s a 400m session you really have to focus on that speed and quality but with the tight up recovery to improve 400m fitness.
James: For an 800m runner what type of anaerobic top speed work would be commonplace?
Tamsyn: I think this area is the key to being a good 800m runner and being able to mix it on the world stage. The women’s 800m on the circuit can take you through in 55 seconds or 60 seconds and an athlete needs to be able to cope with both. We do lots of varied sessions to work on this including 200’s and 300’s with short recovery all done at that sub 15 second pace. We do change down sessions for example: 500m 2 min 300m 2 min 400m at 15 second pace then last 100 in sub 14 seconds, 4 min recovery and repeat the set. Also some great race practice sessions of 600m (1.28) 30 sec 200m or 4 x 200m off 30 sec recovery at 28-29 second pace.
James: You achieved the 800m B-Standard for London 2012 but were not selected to represent Australia in what would have been your fourth Olympic Games. Can you describe your feelings towards this decision?
Tamsyn: Disappointment, however after the treatment I have received from AA over the last 4 years I wasn’t surprised by it. In 2009 at the Worlds in Berlin I had to sit and watch my events because the head coach and AA said I wasn’t good enough even though I had A standards in the 800, 400 and a B in the 400 hurdles and would have easily made the semi finals in any of them. Then in 2011 in awful conditions I ran 2.00.80 in the national final beating the second and third placed girls Kelly Hetherington and Sianne Toemoe (good runners) by over 2 and ½ seconds, yet was again told I was not good enough. 2.00.80 would have got me 15th in Daegu and that is without the peaking and better weather/competition! Don’t even get me started on London! 2.03.8 made the semi-finals as a fastest loser!! I was disappointed, but more hurt that my own federation that I had supported for 20 years by staying and racing domestically, forgoing great competition on the indoor circuit to support the system, often at the detriment to my own advancement, had let me down. I always raced, even when I tore my calf last year leading in to the Newcastle and Adelaide Grand Prix races, I took to the track to support the system. There is no reward for that. With the current system athletes would be better off being selfish and look after themselves, which is sad for the sport domestically that I grew up loving. I am hurt that when I appealed my non-selection the head selector Dion Russell, who I had once been team-mates with, chose to write that the reasons I wasn’t selected were my performances over my career including the fact I hadn’t broken 2 minutes since Beijing, (I didn’t run 800’s in 2009 or 2010), stating that the World Indoors doesn’t count (tell the Olympic and world medalists I beat that) and that in Beijing I didn’t perform well (I ran 1.59.6 in my heat! How many Aussie women run 1.59 in majors?). The disrespect shown to me by the selectors, head coach and president over the last four years is just disgusting. The worst thing is that I am only one of many who feel this way. I hope the personnel changes soon so that the athletes of the future don’t have experiences like mine, or are never told that a world title and 1.59 in a major is not good enough.
James: You have mentioned you are now coming towards the end of your career in athletics. How long do you plan to keep competing in the sport and what are your remaining goals? Do you intend to stay involved in a coaching capacity afterwards?
Tamsyn: I am definitely near the end. I could have run more races domestically as I was in shape, however I didn’t have the desire to run for the meets AA had organised anymore after what has happened over the past 4 years. I chose to run/help out at the meets that are athlete friendly such as the Hunter Track Classic organised by Scott Westcott and the Zatopek organised by the guys at Athletics Victoria (AV) under Nick Honey. I will always help out at grass roots and will always be there for any athlete that needs my help/support.
James: Nutrition obviously plays an important part in the life of an elite athlete. What would be your typical dieting habits in the lead up to a big race?
Tamsyn: I always think that one should eat well and train well and your body will find the right balance. I think it’s best as a middle distance runner to not be obsessive with food. I just eat healthy yet if I crave something I will have it. I guess basics are fruit, veggies, meat/fish and calcium. As long as I get that each day I feel pretty good. The only supplements I took were glucosamine and fish oil later in my career because I was running with a broken/arthritic toe.
James: Australia has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. What needs to be done to combat this issue and how should sport, fitness and exercise be marketed towards the average person?
Tamsyn: I think fitness should be marketed as an every person activity. A lot of people still classify themselves as non-sporty. The thing is you don’t have to be sporty to go for a walk, run up stairs or join a gym! Take the elitism out of the word sport in schools and hopefully participation will increase and healthy attitudes are taught that can be taken with people throughout their lives.
James: You are a great supporter of grassroots athletics and have competed many times in the AV Shield, Victoria’s primary inter-club competition, which caters for every athlete regardless of age or standard. How important has this competition been with regards broadening the appeal of track and field and getting more of the average Joe’s involved in the sport? Going forward, how can this appeal be increased?
Tamsyn: I am glad I grew up around the athletes I did. My first coach Neville Sillitoe, who coached my dad Greg (Commonwealth gold medallist and Olympian), and Olympic Silver medalist Peter Norman always taught me the importance racing has in training. I was able to see first hand how Catherine Freeman, Rohan Robinson, Kyle Vander Kuyp, Nova Peris, Andrew Murphy, Lee Naylor, Lauren Hewitt, Margaret Crowley, Anne Cross and Tim Forsyth etc all raced inter-club and then performed for Australia. I learnt that inter-club had an importance in peak elite performance. I loved being able to race world-class competition regularly in my own back yard. It made me a tougher competitor. One of my earliest memories in track and field is racing at Aberfeldie in a 100m against Sharon Stewart/Russell. I was so in awe that an Aussie athlete was in the lane next to me. I think that elite athletes being accessible to our younger generation is so important. You never know what a simple thing like racing on a Saturday arvo can do to inspire.
James: Athletics remains a minority sport in Australia with low spectator attendances and almost non-existent TV coverage. What needs to be done to raise the profile of the sport?
Tamsyn: It is definitely a minority sport these days and that is sad. I still remember when 18,000 people watched the Melbourne Grand Prix and athletics was live on Fox Sports. I believe that if your sport is not live on TV then it is hard to generate the interest that other sports get. We need to entice those kids who try athletics at Little Athletics to stay and continue to seniors. The depth across events is really concerning and I feel that the elitism that AA has brought in over the last decade has led us to this point. We did not capitalise on the success of the home Olympics and Commonwealths. Aussies love to cheer for an Aussie and this was proven at these two great events. It wasn’t about who was well known or who won medals, it was about cheering for those in the green and gold! And wow those cheers were passionate and loud. Certainly not elitist or selective! We have since sent teams without Aussies in events where we could have. This means that during an Olympics when our sport is on free TV the networks aren’t crossing to events without Aussies in them. This is an opportunity lost, not only for the promotion of our sport but to showcase and introduce our athletes to the Aussie public and hopefully not only entice them to our sport but let them know who our athletes are. The flow on effect is exposure to them and the sport which they can bring back to schools, sporting clubs and the domestic season. It is easier for the media to promote an Aussie representative and for others in the event to compete against and hopefully close the gap on the rest of the world. It also prevents disillusionment. Why would you spend money, time and put your life on hold to be the best in the country when you are not wanted for representation when possible? Or the ones behind this winner could think why bother if they don’t send the best who is beating them.
I think that our stars need to be put into mainstream events here in Australia so they become better known. If people aren’t coming to watch and see our product then lets do what John Steffenson is doing well at the moment, take the product to them! John is a track and field athlete that is on mainstream TV with celebrity apprentice and people who have never watched athletics in their lives are seeing a track and field athlete and getting to know him. We need to think outside the square a little like cricket did with Twenty 20. The first step is having Athletics Australia accept that the way they are marketing our sport here domestically is currently not working and needs a complete overhaul. Athletes are held accountable all the time, perhaps its time for them to also be held accountable.
James: Contrary to the above the Stawell Gift Festival is one particular aspect of the sport in Australia which is still thriving with good attendance figures, TV coverage and prize money. You have competed at this festival regularly throughout your career. What are your thoughts on handicapped racing? Should this concept be adopted internationally in order to raise interest in the sport among the general public?
Tamsyn: I think the Stawell Gift is a fantastic event. It should be noted though that this is a direct result of the people who work on Stawell, like Brian Roe, the Culbert’s with Jump media, John Tolman and others who have worked very hard to make the iconic event of Stawell last into this modern generation that is saturated with other things to do on an Easter Weekend. I think that handicap racing is great for incorporating athletes of all levels and allowing them to feel like they are capable of competing against world class athletes that would otherwise not be possible. I think that pro running and track and field both have a place and the two can be interrelated like at Zatopek and Hunter Track classic with events strategically placed to bring the two worlds together and hopefully help declining Grand Prix crowds. What I do know from my time at Stawell and running the pros is that these athletes are passionate and supportive. Having them at athletics meets domestically would be a positive thing.
James: Many Australian athletes have struggled with the track season in Europe and the major championships being at a different time to the Australian track season and can often peak three or four months too early. Has this ever been a concern for you and how did you manage this challenge?
Tamsyn: I am a big believer in racing so I am happy to race both the domestic season and European season. I tend to still be doing a big base whilst racing in Australia but I think racing is an important part of training. I don’t like the added pressure AA puts on us though without great communication, sometimes enforcing village entry times, pre departure times and higher qualifying standards than the IAAF have. I think the extra pressure that AA puts on is the reason why athletes sometimes are flat at majors and don’t make it out of the heats/qualifying. More trust should be put in our top athletes and their individual coaches without placing so many unnecessary expectations on them. An athlete every season has one main goal – the major, and that’s where they should be focusing their build up.
James: What are your views on drug taking in athletics? Have you ever suspected a competitor? How do you deal with the frustration that some opponents may not be playing by the rules?
Tamsyn: Drugs have no place in sport. Ignorance and being naive is not an excuse. I think the drug issue is still a big problem and it is shown with the Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and now the Essendon Bombers issues. I think that if the testing hasn’t worked yet investigations turn up irregularities then the punishment must be a ban like with Lance and Marion. I believe in a no tolerance policy, one strike and you’re out. I think with the Essendon saga currently playing out in the media it needs to be addressed ASAP. It concerns me hearing stories of players and athletes associated with this story being injected with substances that they apparently aren’t sure of. As an athlete I would never allow that to happen.
I have suspected many competitors over the years and some have been caught at a later date. The sad thing is that it’s too late to get Olympic finals or World semis back. The clean athlete can be abused by media for missing these things too when it wasn’t a level playing field. Yet retrospectively in a sport like ours the media won’t go back and apologise or for example head selector, Dion wont look at the fact I missed the semi in 2007 because a drug cheat ran past me in the last 50m to take my semi spot in a ridiculous drug fueled kick. He just says I failed. Or on another side note Dion wont look at the now proven fact that Hermaphrodites changed the womens 800m over that 2008-2011 period running 1.54 times that were not achievable by clean females. Drug cheats and hermaphrodites have changed the race and as a clean female athlete you never get what you deserve back – the memory and experience and chance to do something special! The hermaphrodite issue is a more complex one but my stance on drug cheats is if caught they should be banned for life and all performances they have ever recorded stricken from the books!
James: Finally, what is your favourite country you have travelled to during your career and why?
Tamsyn: I love Spain, for many reasons; the people, the weather, the food, the culture, fast times and I guess my world title!
James: That’s great Tamsyn. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck for the rest of your athletics career and beyond.