An Athlete's Perspective - Thomas Chamney [aka Madra] Part I - USA Athletics Scholarships

An Athlete’s Perspective – Thomas Chamney [aka Madra] Part I

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We threw caution to the wind and let renowned raconteur Thomas Chamney have editorial privileges. In a two part article, the Irishman talks about how his NCAA experience came about and played out in South Bend, IN at the University of Notre Dame.  He entered the NCAA conveyor belt a 1:51 800m man but emerged with a 1:46 best and a national title to boot. However, his time wasn’t without its trials and tribulations.

trackbound fans, Madra speaks…

Greetings sports fans.

The boys at trackbound have given me free reign to say whatever I wanted about heading to the States and my experiences over there. So gather round children as it’s story time with Papa Madra.

How’d I end up in the States to begin with? Simple, I harassed my way in. You got to keep in mind I couldn’t run to catch a bus back in the day…okay, maybe not as bad as that, but the incestuous hype machine that is the tiny world of Irish athletics never paid me a second thought. To break it down for you, I couldn’t run cross-country; had no interest in it. The only event I could manage was the 800m…not 400m, not 1500m…just the magical dance that is the two lap tango. Not exactly a major sell to big time universities in the States where they look to invest in those who can double up, such as 1500m runners doing cross country or 400m hurdlers doing 400m flat or relays. But I wanted to get the hell out of Ireland and expand my horizons…why? Why not? It would mean I wouldn’t have to bother with the Leaving Cert (the Irish equivalent of A levels)… and of course I’d seen American Pie, it was time to tap into that market. Love a little import/export into the States.

But I didn’t want to go to just anywhere. Seeing as none of the traditional ‘Irish’ universities even knew who I was (Providence, Villanova and Iona), they weren’t going to offer me anything. And besides, I wanted to get a good degree from a top class academic institution. So with a bit of research on the internet, remember folks this was the age of dialup so we’re talking hour upon hour trudging through websites, I decided on 4 colleges to apply to, namely Princeton, Notre Dame, Boston College and Harvard. To cut a long story short, the only one that offered me a spot, not a scholarship now, just a spot in the university was Notre Dame. This was in April, before the main bulk of the Irish season had even taken place in my final year in school. I had a personal best of 1:54.4, not exactly the stuff of dreams. But I had a plan…run fast enough to get a scholarship that summer or just not show up in September in the States, hang up the spikes and head to some random Irish third level institution where I could booze my way into obscurity.

With this in mind, I showed up at the track one Wednesday evening for an Irish Milers Club race. I’d just finished my Leaving Cert exams the day before and spent much of the previous afternoon in the pub, doing a bit of hellraising. Expectations weren’t exactly high for this race? So out I went and somehow clocked a massive PB of 1:51.4. The next thing I did was to get on the blower to the head coach at Notre Dame. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Coach Piane, it’s Thomas Chamney.

Piane: Who?

Me: The Irish kid that’s down to come to Notre Dame in September

Piane: Uhhh, oh yeah! Yeah, how you doin’ champ?

Me: Good, I just ran 1:51.40. Where’s my scholarship?

Piane: That’s the tits buddy. I’ll pop it in the mail.

The rest as they say is history. I put faith in my ability to get a time fast enough to get money out of the old codger and I did it. Piane in fairness to him was true to his word and sent the scholarship contract over. My favourite story of the whole recruiting process is when Piane told me how he ran into Mick Byrne (former Iona and now Wisconsin coach) and Ray Treacy (Providence College) at a race and asked them what they made of me as an athlete. Both of them responded that they had no idea who I was and that I must be crap, because they knew everyone in Ireland so I must be a nobody. I’d like to think I proved both of them wrong and if that’s the only thing I’ve achieved I can die with a smile on my face. Anyway, now I was on my way to America, for what I believed to be the pinnacle of my athletics career. I’d used my athletics to gain access to one of America’s best academic institutions and all on someone else’s dime, good schtuff.

So to summarise my actual time in the States, it went something like this. The first year was the hardest training I’d ever attempted in my life up to that point. I came from a program of, shall we say, laissez faire athletics where I certainly wasn’t pushed to breaking point. But at Notre Dame, much like most American colleges, they take the training seriously…day after day of hard mileage and hard intervals. I remember my first session. I did 1 x mile in 5:15 absolutely f%cked! But gradually I got into it and got to grips with the training. Which left the studies! The American system of continual assessment means that it’s much like going to school where you have assignments and tests regularly throughout the semester. For someone like me, who is prone to wandering, shall we say, from the righteous path, this was a godsend as it kept me from going completely hatchet on life in general. That year I dropped my PB down to 1:49.5. However, as is the case with most people in their first year in the States, the training caught up with me and I faded out pretty fast as the season wore on. The training and racing is tough and it will certainly take a year of two to get to grips with it, depending on what your training regime was like back at home. But once you do you’re liable to fly.

And so I continued the next year, happy enough to be competitive at conference level and happy enough to be the best 800m on the Notre Dame squad. My second season was badly interrupted by a series of viruses that left me completely knackered most of the time. This is where I learned the downside to the American system; they haven’t got a bull’s notion on what to do with regards to sports medicine, certainly not at Notre Dame. When the team physician is nicknamed Dr. Death you know you’re in the sh*t. But, due mainly to my low aspirations, I was happy enough to slog through the bad times and when I came back to Ireland that summer I ran quite well, equally my time from the year before and running much more consistently under the 1:50 barrier, as well as picking up a surprise bronze medal at the National champs.

Part II can be found here.

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