Editors Note: Please note that Athletics Australia were not approached for comment about the contents of this article.
Runners Tribe advise that these opinions are of Tamsyn Manou only.
There was a time when outspoken athlete Tamsyn Manou (nee Lewis) was better known for her cat fights with Jana Rawlinson (nee Pittman). When some people took more notice of her posing in a bikini in men’s magazines than her running. She has had many rolling eyes and critics who in the past have publically slammed her.
However this outspoken athlete has represented Australian for over 15 years. She has won a total of 17 Australian national titles over three distances (400m, 400m hurdles and 800m). She has represented Australia in three Olympic Games, five outdoor World Championships and three World Indoor Championships. On top of that she has won gold at the 2008 World Indoor Championships and in 1999 silver in the 4x400m relay. She has been part of three successful 4x400m teams that have won gold medals at a commonwealth level and has been the closest athlete in 11 years to get close to Charlene Rendina’s Australian 800m record which has stood since 1976.
Recently criticised by the media for letting down her fellow 4x400m team mates by deciding not to attend the up-coming World Championships in Daegu this month, Tamsyn opens up to The Runners Tribe to give us the true story and insights into her running career up to now – how she overcomes criticism and talks about the coaching philosophes from her past coaches such as Sebastian Coe, Daley Thompson and Peter Fortune.
Is it fair to say no one was more surprised then yourself, when you won your first major international title at the World Indoor Championships in Spain in 2008? The win shattered Mozambique superstar Maria Mutola’s bid to claim her unprecedented eighth World indoor 800m title.
Q: When you look back on that gold medal moment, has the memory faded with time, or is it still vivid?
A: Definitely still vivid. As an athlete you put so much into your training and a lot of sacrifices are made. For me I have always done the training and put myself on the start line giving everything I have. For that one moment, to be the best in the world, standing on a dais hearing your national anthem is extremely special and I will never forget it. Especially beating a world-class field including Maria Mutola, who had been the superstar of the 800 for as long as I had been competing. It showed me, and hopefully others, that if you keep doing the right things often enough and presenting yourself, anything is possible.
Throughout your career you have been assisted by a number of well-known coaches such as Peter Fortune, Sebastian Coe and Daley Thompson. Since 2004 your brother Justin has taken over the coaching duties.
Q: What are the basic philosophes of Fort, Coe and Thompson and your present coach Justin?
I have been so lucky with my coaches. My first coach was a man called Neville Sillitoe whom coached my Father to the Mexico Olympics and he is one of the main reasons I’m still able to compete at 33. As a junior his philosophy was to develop with a minimalist approach whilst concentrating on speed. All my coaches have had a philosophy of being supportive and guiding me on and off the track. Each coach has given me so much and taught me things that I still use in my career/life today.
Fort helped me to bridge the gap from juniors to seniors – not an easy task – he did this thru his great ability to set a successful program.
Daley has the strongest mental attitude of anyone I have ever met. His work ethic is second to none so the philosophy I picked up and still get from him is to apply yourself whole heartedly to your training and leave no stone unturned. His voice still says to me in every second last rep that this is the one that counts because no point being a hero on the last rep!
Seb has been one of the most influential people on my career. He is still a massive part of my life and career. He taught me that if you want something badly enough you put your head down and you do everything 100% right. His philosophy is on the importance of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. Every element of life/training is important to get to the end result. He showed me the importance of having a great team around you to get to your goals. The little things count, because a lot of the times it is the difference.
Finally the person who has been the biggest influence on me in life and track is my big brother and current coach Justin. His philosophy is to get the most out of oneself. He coaches athletes at various levels and to each one he says it’s about getting the most out of the talent you have and using what you have to the best of your ability each day. I love this philosophy for not only track but life. And that is why I am still here. We still believe I haven’t fully reached my potential so we train to do that. We focus on my ability, my strengths and weaknesses, to try and hit that perfect race before retirement.
Both your mother Carolyn and father Greg were athletes themselves. Your mother a six time national high jump champion and your father a semi finalist in the 200m at the Mexico City Olympics.
Q What useful advice did they give you when you started to get into the sport of athletics?
I guess to be perfectly honest they didn’t want me to do the sport and finally after the last few years of seeing first hand the hardships and politics of the sport, which can lead to disappointment and hurt, I now understand why.
My mum should have gone to the Olympics having finished 2nd on a count back to first in the trials yet they took 1st and 3rd. My Dad missed the games in 1972 even though he qualified and he won the nationals over Peter Fitzgerald in 1976 and they took Peter to the Olympics on discretion as he had a medical certificate. Little things like that have tainted their view on the sport as they didn’t want me to get hurt like them. Having said all that I had to read about most of their achievements because they rarely talked about athletics as I grew up. When they realized I had talent at the sport and loved it they have always been supportive and my number one fans. I am so lucky to have had them as they made sure I wasn’t pushed as a junior and as they completely get it they understand the quiet break-fasts pre-race, the grumpy replies post bad race and are always there with the perfect advice to make me a better athlete/person. I am very lucky as I think they are first and foremost parents and are always proud that I go out there and have a go. And as their daughter I love making them proud. I can never thank them enough for coming to all my meets and supporting me financially and emotionally in a pretty tough sport.
A person may describe you as a tenacious athlete, who seems to face as many challenges off the track as on.
Q How do you separate the politics of the governing body from your enjoyment of the sport and continue to remain focused and motivated?
Ah that’s a hard one. I guess for me I am a true lover of the sport of track and field. The future of the sport in this country is very important to me and I respect every athlete at every level who participates and has a go at it. I get unbelievably disappointed when the governing body makes it tougher on the athletes than it already is. I think telling athletes on the one hand they are sending A’s, B’s, & the biggest team to the Commonwealth Games last year and then taking that back is not a good thing for athletes who are giving everything to represent our country and our sport proudly.
I am a vocal believer of big teams. I think for our sport to survive we need athletes in lanes. I will retire next year and when I watch the World Champs in 2013 I am more likely to watch an event if an Aussie’s in it than not. I love cheering for my team mates. I think if they are the best we have then send them. This sport is very tough. A lot of sacrifices need to be made and I think team representation is a deserved reward. What keeps them in the sport without reward? Not every athlete is going to make a final or medal; for some athletes making the B time/distance (which these days is world class) is their Olympic medal and they deserve to be rewarded.
I also think the snow ball effect of this will increase numbers which are rapidly declining in our sport (in athletics in Victoria we have decreased senior membership from 16,000 members in early 1990’s to 4000 members currently).
We are Australian, we are in a completely different hemisphere, and we are so far away from the world class races. Athletes in Australia do not get paid vast sums of money to compete. Not every athlete can afford to be based in Europe and compete on the off chance of making a team. Chasing times/distances in Australia is much harder than being in Europe where world class meets are on week in week out. I don’t believe the elite European model works here. I think an athlete will flourish and get the most out of themselves in an environment of support, transparency, and belief in the system. Athletes will support the system if the system supports them. Perhaps we will keep athletes on the cusp of selection in the sport a bit longer then, or we will convince the great football/netball/cricketer to stick with athletics.
So I guess for me my love of competing with other athletes and then also trying to speak up when I feel the athletes aren’t being treated well goes hand in hand with my love of the sport.
Q What is it about the sport that keeps you involved despite limitations and difficulties?
– My coach and training environment. I love going to training because I get to hang out with my friends. I also think the goals my coach set’s keeps me striving to improve. That and an inner belief that I still have more to give.
I guess you should always focus on the positives and there are many great things about the sport of track and field, especially at the grass roots level. I love going back to where I began in the sport and running interclub. I love seeing the athletes out there competing for the love of it, their enthusiasm and support is refreshing. Track and Field although an individual sport can still be very social, and most of my great mates I have met within the sport.
In total you have won seventeen Australian National Championships at 400m, 400m hurdles and 800m. You have also gone on to represent Australia in three Olympic Games, five Outdoor World Championships and three World Indoor Championships. On top of that you won gold at the 2008 World Indoor Championships and a silver in 1999 in 4x400m relay, been part of three successful 4x400m teams that have won gold medals at a Commonwealth level and have been the closest athlete in 11 years to get close to Charlene Rendina’s Australian 800m record which has been standing since 1976.
This is an exhausting list of accomplishments, which in any other country would probably be celebrated. However in the past you have been criticised and called an underachiever, fair-weather athlete, a show pony – the list continues.
Q How do you overcome this criticism and not let it affect you negatively?
I think in life you will always come across criticism when you are out there having a go. I still believe it is far better to have a go than sit on the side lines and be a ‘could have been’. I think what I have learnt to do is only focus on the comments of those who are important to me. My brother says to me ‘if it was easy everyone would do it’ and he’s right. I am out there just giving my best if it’s not good enough for someone who is sitting on the sidelines hiding behind a computer screen on a blog, or a journalist who has never been an elite athlete in his/her life I really am not going to respect their comments so it’s like water off a ducks back. The people whose opinion I respect are people of integrity, people who show some sense of understanding as to what is required to make it to the elite level in a truly world sport. I have for over 15 years given everything I have to represent my family, friends and country proudly. There are a lot of great athletes out there and I compete with them. I may not have achieved what others expect of me but I have always given my all and I sleep well at night knowing that. I have achieved all my goals through hard work, sacrifice and dedication.
You will find the majority of criticism comes from people whom are unhappy in their own skin and have not achieved what they wanted to out of life. I like a quote my dad taught me ‘if you see a bit of dog poo on the side of the path you don’t stop and look at it – you move to one side and continue down the path you’re travelling’.
Q What have your accomplishments taught you?
I enjoy the moment when I have achieved a certain goal and then I move on quickly to the next goal. So I suppose my accomplishments have taught me not to dwell on them, just focus on the process of achieving another one.
In the past you have been quoted saying “Being in a position of privilege where people look to you as a role model, it’s very important to involve yourself in positive activities that benefit the community.” Believing that elite athletes should involve themselves in the broader society for their own benefit as well as that of others.
The Butterfly Foundation is an organisation you support and an ambassador for.
Q What drove you to want to support this community based charitable organisation?
I guess being a female athlete in a very body conscious sport and having been affected personally by an eating disorder I felt that it was a good fit for myself to be aligned with The Butterfly Foundation.
I often see athletes and young people in society being affected like I was with this horrible disease that can really control your life. I think the most important thing with going thru hard times, like suffering an eating disorder, is that when you make it out the other side if you can help others then you should do so. I love being involved with charities because I love seeing the positive effects they have on the community. That and you also meet some truly amazing people. I am also aligned with the Variety Club of Victoria and Assistance Dogs Australia. They are all amazing charities that I hope to work alongside for a very long time.
To clear the air you were recently selected for the 4x400m team for the coming World championships in Daegu, but have chosen to withdraw and go back to Australia and start preparing for London Olympics next year.
Q What is your plan of attack with London less then a year away?
Yes I didn’t expect it to be such a big deal. At 33 and having represented my country for over 15 years my coach and I thought, that with one more year left, I would focus on my individual goal of making a final in the 800m at the London Olympics. I feel bad that that has been construed as selfish. I informed the selection panel I didn’t wish to be named and was extremely surprised to see my name in the team.
I saw that Anneliese Rubie hurt her Hamstring at the World University Games, and subsequently spoke to the relay coach and the AA CEO and told them that if they needed me (as they didn’t name a reserve) I would fly in two days before and run. I had already informed the girls that if they didn’t qualify I would help them qualify domestically or in Japan, like we did in 2009. However the idea of three girls potentially not getting a run in Daegu because AA didn’t name a reserve, I certainly did not want to happen.
However, I was informed by the CEO of AA, that the leader of the high performance program, Eric Hollingsworth, did not want me and will use a 100m runner as a reserve. This is confusing, not only to me but to a particular AA Board member, as Hollingsworth continually uses elitism as a basis for his exclusionary stance on not selecting B qualifiers – yet instead of using the best 400m runner he is prepared to settle for an untried 100m runner in the position?
My plan heading into London after being excluded from Daegu is to get that 800m A time. The A is 1.59.9 which is going to be tough to do in Australia but my coach and I will use the domestic season and grass roots interclub to achieve the time – hence the need to come home and start my base training rather than miss 3 weeks of it whilst preparing for the 4×400.
Recently you married former test cricketer Graham Manou and said good bye to Tamsyn Lewis and embraced your new married name Tamsyn Manou.
Q Do you feel London will be the last time you will run in the green and gold before you hang up the runners and focus on starting a family?
I’m trying not to think too much about it too much as I know I will miss it. But yes London will be my last Olympics and I will retire after it to do other things with my life and hopefully start giving back more to those who have given me so much over the years. I often think that I will walk away and get away from the politics of it all; however I see my training partner, Katherine Katsanevakis, and my club mates and I think I love this sport and I believe that it needs a big change. Athletes need to feel like they have hope and support and I would like to see if I could help provide that. So many athletes out there on the cusp of selection are disillusioned with the sport and I would like to change that, or at least try.