One man and his madra still in the hunt


HOME AND AWAY/IAN O'RIORDAN:Thomas Chamney has made excessive sacrifices this past year but is not yet ready to abandon his Olympic project

WHEN Thomas Chamney started project Madra08 he thought he knew what was involved: sacrifice, hardship, loneliness, and all that.

Actually, he had no idea.

The objective of Madra08 was to achieve the 800-metre qualifying time for the Beijing Olympics; to become a professional athlete; to live the dream; to not let love or money stand in the way - which as it turns out, they very nearly did.

Money, he realised, would not exactly be pouring in. Two summers ago, Chamney ran 1:46.82 to finish third at an international meeting in Belgium, a time that later secured his selection for the European Championships. He was summoned to the victory podium, where a smiling Belgian official duly handed him a small, brown envelope.

"I got all excited and quickly opened it up," he says. "Inside there was €15, in cash. I thought they had to be joking with me. It wouldn't even buy a round of drinks for the lads that night. But beggars can't be choosers. I mean the most I've ever made out of athletics is a couple of hundred euro. There's just no money in the sport anymore, unless you're breaking world records."

Last summer, Chamney improved his best to 1:46.46, yet still missed out on the World Championships in Osaka. He lost his Irish title to David Campbell, and while Campbell earned the right to go to Osaka, Chamney was left pondering his future. At 23, he had some tough choices to make.

He'd just graduated from Notre Dame University, that noted home of learning and sport in South Bend, Indiana, where he'd spent the previous five years. He had a degree in English literature and many of his classmates were being offered jobs with starting salaries of $60,000. Although he had hardly anything in his bank account, he still could not resist the call of project Madra08.

(At this point, Madra08 should be explained. In recent years, Chamney has been known as "the dog" among his training partners, for reasons not entirely clear. When designing his project to make Beijing, he saw it fitting to give it a title - and so he chose "madra", which, as almost everyone knows, is Irish for "dog", and the year, 2008)

The first and most important step in Madra08 involved moving to the small Spanish town of Soria, 125 miles north of Madrid.

Soria is home to a celebrated enclave of Spanish athletes who train under the renowned coach Enrique Pascual, whose past- pupils include Fermin Cacho, who famously won Olympic 1,500-metre gold at Barcelona 92, and Abel Anton, the two-time marathon world champion.

Chamney had met Pascual at the 2007 European Indoors in Birmingham, and being fluent in Spanish, persuaded Pascual to take over his coaching. This, of course, meant moving from South Bend to Soria.

But when Chamney persuaded his American girlfriend of four years to come along, and got the blessing of his coach Seán McManus, he packed his bags and said "hasta luego" to South Bend.

"At the end of last summer I sat down with Seán and decided what to do next, to give me the best chance of making Beijing. After five years with Seán, we agreed it was time for a change and that a new direction would help me make the breakthrough.

"When I talked with Enrique, the training sounded relatively similar to what I was doing, but with greater intensity, and with real quality athletes around.

"This would allow me to train with fellas faster than me, to bring me on. Soria is a small town, like Clonmel (his home town), but has facilities you wouldn't believe: an indoor track, outdoor stadium, free massage. On paper it sounded like the best option.

"I was very positive about the move, and excited about it, but slowly but surely, from September on, it just went downhill."

Part of the problem was that from the beginning Chamney felt like an outsider. He reckoned he could handle that, but his girlfriend couldn't. In October, they broke up, after four years. Suddenly love and money were standing in the way of Madra08.

"It was a disaster. But it was a question of do I want to do this properly or do I do this half-assed.

"She wanted to go home, but I had to tell her I was sorry, this is all that matters to me this year."

Despite the increasing isolation, and scant finances, Chamney battled on as far as Christmas, but when he returned to Soria from a training spell in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he finally realised it was time to bail.

"From the first week in Soria, I was quite surprised at the way the Spanish trained. Not so much how hard they trained, but they were doing five track sessions a week, and I just wasn't recovering.

"It became a slippery slope, and every week I'd feel a little more tired. They train ridiculously hard but are somehow able to recover. I just wasn't able to do it.

"It also didn't feel like the right environment. I speak fluent Spanish; that wasn't the problem. It was just a different atmosphere, especially coming from the American collegiate system.

"In Spain, they view you as competition. It's cut-throat. Even though you train with them, they're there to beat you, not help you. I don't want to bash on Spain, but when it comes to athletics, they're very closed-minded.

"And when I broke up with my girlfriend, I was there on my own, sitting in the apartment thinking that session didn't go well at all. I'd let it all fester in my head, and then when it came to competing I couldn't get excited at all.

"And my performances were just atrocious. I couldn't break 1:50 indoors, and was exhausted.

"There are a lot of athletes training away from home, but for me, things just went pear-shaped. I just didn't feel I was getting the support I needed. I was in bits.

"I could have stayed there and hoped it turned around, but this was Olympics year, too important for such a gamble. I was worried about changing course mid-stream, but I had to jump ship. I had a lease there and all, but had to leave it."

He called up McManus, who quickly suggested Chamney join up with his group at Tallahassee, the state capital of Florida.

That was in late February, and project Madra08 is since back on track.

"Since I've come back out here, to be honest, things couldn't be going any better. The work I did in Spain certainly wasn't a waste. I was seriously worried leaving Spain, and it hasn't been the smooth ride I was anticipating, but it looks like things have come around again."

Tallahassee still has several advantages over Ireland in that it's significantly warmer, and cheaper. Chamney secured some sponsorship to fund Madra08, mainly from Club Energise, but financially, it's a massive struggle.

But he needs to run 1:46 to make Beijing. That was and still is the only goal of Madra08.

"I just wasn't happy in Spain, but I've rediscovered the fire in Florida, why I'm doing it in the first place. If I don't run the A standard I will be very close.

"In a way, it does kind of hinge on making Beijing. That's the plan in my head for the next four or five years. Getting to Beijing is the first step of that, with a view towards stepping up to the 1,500 metres for London (2112), and to be finalist material there.

"It's hard to know if I'll keep going if I don't make it. I had my heart broken last year. It was a long, hard year, mentally - to lose my Irish title, to miss out on Osaka. These were all things I was fully expecting to do. And then to lose my girlfriend . . .

"So if I don't make the A standard for Beijing we'll just have to see. I have other ambitions in life. I want to go back a do a post-grad. If I was working in the real world I'd be making five times what I have right now. And that is hard sometimes.

"I know I'm not trying to get to Beijing to win a medal. But I'm not playing around here.

"Though I'm still only 23, it will be hard to keep going the way I am if I don't get the A standard. I'd like to stay in the sport, but I don't think I'd be able to dedicate as much time and effort. And the truth is I don't enjoy being away from home. But at the end of the day, if I make Beijing, it will all be worth it."

You can follow Chamney's progress via the Madra08 website: