The rough-and-tumble of the 800-metre race is not for the warm and fuzzy, and many have mistaken Tamsyn Lewis to be just that—to their peril, as it turns out. After spending years taking the long, hard road, Tamsyn is now, finally, a world champion.
Leaner, faster and more powerful than ever, the way she's looking, her best is still in front of her.
Lewis's upbeat and affable exterior belies her toughness. To her, the race is a metaphor for her life. She has dragged many an anchor of criticism around with her over the years, mainly from fellow athletes—most notably, Jana Rawlinson—and sports commentators.
She's been called many things: underachiever, fair-weather athlete, a show pony, more concerned with celebrity than track performance. Of course, her recent form disproves the lot but more than that, it's a tribute to an athlete who has overcome, worked hard to achieve and always valued honesty.
It's the honesty that has sometimes landed this high-profile athlete in trouble. There shouldn't really be such a thing as “being honest to your detriment,” especially when you're not a tactless person. But there is, and over the years, her candour has drawn plenty of heat.
In 2001, she publicly defended Cathy Freeman when the press noted she'd put on a kilo or two. At the time, Lewis told me: “I wish I could keep my mouth shut occasionally but I just can't lie.” She was angry on her friend's behalf: “You can't please people.
If you're too skinny, you get criticised, or too big. She's done enough for the country. Get off her back! She's an amazing person.”
She managed to draw fire away from Cathy—toward herself! But she's not cowed by the attacks of detractors.
“My attitude hasn't changed over the years,” she says. “I've dealt with criticism by realising everyone is entitled to their own opinion and what they think shouldn't really affect me. I only listen to my support network—family, friends and coach—because they are the only people who know the full story.”
For a while, these detractors found Lewis an easy target. After all, she looked as though she was headed for the terrible fate of the unsuccessful athlete; one who has sacrificed everything only to become an “also-ran.”
She has lived a gruelling, lonely, life at times, rising at around 6 am every day for her morning runs, spending much of her life in clinics, enduring the boredom of repetition in the gym, doing more dips, presses and cleans than you and I have had hot dinners. If you live in Melbourne, you might have spotted her running around the Tan, or down at the Melbourne beach, where the icy waters soothe her burning legs so she can do it all again the next day.
“It's a choice I've made, because I just had to if I wanted to be an elite athlete,” she explains. “It is a sacrifice to be away so long from my friends and family.”
As for the criticism, it has been mostly unjustified. In 1999, she was top 60, after four years on the sidelines coping with eating disorders, school and the difficulties of being suddenly considered “elite.” The next year, she was in the top 10.
In 2001, she began to realise she could challenge the very best. She lost to the world champion by 0.1 of a second in the Paris Grand Prix, after being elbowed two lanes off course. She knew then she deserved to be there. But 2003-4 were plagued by hamstring injuries. “I coped with the disappointment by surrounding myself with my support crew, who were positive in helping me get back on track,” Lewis recalls.
Lewis's life rebuts the way she's often been depicted. Her social conscience is uncommon to many athletes, who can easily lose perspective once they attain a certain level. “I find it interesting that the community looks at athletes and models as heroes, when the real heroes are doctors, nurses, teachers, and charity and volunteer workers who really serve the community,” she says.
Her involvement with eating disorder support group The Butterfly Foundation is important to her. After all, body image, like self-image, has been a theme throughout her career. In the early 1990s, she suffered from an eating disorder.
When I interviewed her in 2001 for an Australian sporting publication, she revealed the source of her feelings about the public's obsession with body image: “I had three very tough years. I went through what a lot of teenage girls go through. I didn't look after my body very well. I had a lot of people telling me I was fat. It was probably innocent but when you're young and impressionable, you take it to heart. Because I was so competitive and single-minded, I thought, Oh, I've got to lose weight, and I got so into the single-minded channel of it. I just did it too well. I lost a lot of weight. I had an eating disorder. I never told anyone that, but it came out on the front pages. They said I was bulimic. They told the whole lot, which is hard to deal with when you're still pretty young.”
Childhood obesity is the other end of the same problem. “We live in a superficial world, and I'm passionate about kids having a healthy attitude about their body,” says Lewis. “This also means kids realise the importance of having a healthy body and I encourage kids to have an active lifestyle. It promotes good health, better energy levels and, I believe, a more positive outlook.
“I think the problem stems from kids thinking they have to be good at sport to be active, which is completely untrue. Once we dispel these myths and instil confidence in participation, kids will be more willing to take part in active hobbies.”
Lewis believes elite athletes should involve themselves in broader society for their own benefit, as well as that of others. “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,” she urges.
Her background in the behavioural sciences has taught her the importance of being positive. She shared with me one of her greatest triumphs. “A father once called me and said, ‘Look, my daughter's in hospital and she's really crook. She used to be a great athlete, but ... she's dying.' I thought, I was never that bad! “I wrote her a letter and it was totally candid, because it wasn't to a newspaper or anything, just to a girl who was sick. A month later, she was out of hospital and wrote to thank me. It's the best thing I've ever received. I love working with kids.”
As for her recent—some say belated— success, she believes, in some ways, it's not as unexpected as it seems. “To achieve dreams, it is really important to break them up to realistic smaller goals you can achieve and avoid becoming disappointed along the way. Accept the things you cannot change. There are always things that are thrown at you that you do not expect.”
Still, crossing the finish line first ahead of her nemesis, multiple-world champion Maria Mutola, in this year's World Indoor Championships seemed an enormous surprise to her, despite all her hard work, determination and cheerful approach. The look on her face was as priceless as Steven Bradbury's when he pinched that skating gold medal in 2002. “It was a complete shock,” Lewis says. “I had been trying to beat many of these athletes for years and I had finally achieved it.
“My coach and support group—and even I—believed I could win but I had finally done it, and I was in shock.”
Nevertheless, her brother and coach, Justin, never wants to see that look again. He believes his sister needs to start acting as though she deserves it.
“My family keeps me grounded,” Lewis says. “I just run around in circles.”
Just as all that lonely toil has finally paid dividends, so, too, has her intrepid approach. She believes now that a gold medal in Beijing is a real possibility— and it couldn't happen to a more deserving person.