By Danny Munro (he/him)
The young hurdler talks Olympic dreams, the pressures of success and the importance of being idle after a historic summer in Birmingham.
Elaine Thompson-Herah’s astounding 200 metre games record dominated the mainland headlines on day nine of the Commonwealth Games but in Guernsey, all eyes were set firmly on the men’s 400 metre hurdles.
While Canada’s over eager Malik Metivier fell victim to the cruel fate of the false start, Alastair Chalmers played things cool. Approaching the first stretch of the course at a steady, reserved pace, Chalmers appeared unnerved by the esteemed collection of athletes alongside him.
As the clock marched onwards, the hurdles failed to relent and, unfortunately for Guernsey, the chance of a medal for their golden boy was looking slim as the front three of Jaheel Hyde, Wiseman Mukhobe and Kyron McMaster began to tear away from the trailing pack. Despite an ongoing knee issue, McMaster of the Virgin Islands was undoubtedly the athlete to beat, having fallen shy of a medal by .3 of a second at the Olympics the previous year.
To even be in among the finalists was an impressive achievement for Chalmers. While still recovering from a bout of COVID he had picked up the week before, he was one of just five athletes representing the Channel Island that had witnessed its first Commonwealth medal for 28 years that same week after Lucy Beere picked up a silver in the Lawn Bowls. The Island’s previous Commonwealth titles consisted of another silver in the Lawn Bowls and five medals in Shooting. Track and field remained a feat yet to be triumphed.
But as the leading trio approached the third to last hurdle, fortunes changed in Chalmers’ favour. Mukhobe allowed his right foot to graze the top of the wooden barrier – the cardinal sin of a sport where precision and timing are imperative, and mistakes are a fool’s game.
Chalmers pounced on the lose footing of Mukhobe without hesitation and seized his opportunity to capitalise on the fateful error, smoothly negotiating the final two hurdles as a dejected Mukhobe flailed over the line behind him, attempting to resurrect his medal hopes to no avail.
Though Chalmers had only claimed bronze – it felt like a gold for Guernsey. Two months later, he still beams as he recalls how it felt: “To get a medal on the day was such a beautiful feeling. It was so lovely just speaking to people after the race, seeing how much they enjoyed the emotion in myself afterwards, I just loved it”.
Anybody who missed the race and watched only the aftermath would be forgiven for thinking that Chalmers had won. While the camera caught a quick glimpse of the victor, McMaster, the Guernsey story felt like the real narrative as the camera panned to Chalmers, who lay bundled in a content heap on the trackside.
What followed was one of the most heart-warming moments of the games, as the Chalmers family careered down the steps from the nosebleeds of the 18,000 seater stadium to greet the man who would soon take his spot on the podium.
The Guernseyman says the unremitting support he receives from his loved ones is crucial, claiming that he “100% wouldn’t be at the stage he is right now without them”, and it’s not hard to see why.
As special as that night in Birmingham was, not every day in the life of a professional hurdler is quite as exciting. In fact, full-time sponsorship from Puma means that when Chalmers returns from training, his goal is simply “to do as little as he can”.
Chalmers doesn’t shy away from the fact he’s got a pretty good gig, insisting that doing next to nothing is essential if you want to compete: “My day is pretty simple in the sense that I wake up, then I just train for a couple of hours at the track with my group… and then I just kind of come home and I just rest and get ready for the next day”.
“I find it funny even saying that, because I’m sitting at home for half the day, but we train so hard that we need to basically just do nothing for as long as possible until the next session”.
Though funding from the likes of Puma enables Chalmers to take it easy in his down time, things haven’t always been so easy for elite athletes. Sally Gunnell, the British 400m hurdle record holder whose career saw Commonwealth and Olympic golds, claims she was unable to go fulltime until she had competed professionally for several years.
Having won her first Commonwealth gold in 1986, it wasn’t until 1992 that Gunnell received an Olympic-size wage packet: “I would say (funding) is probably better now than it used to be. Obviously we didn’t used to have lottery money and so I wrote a lot of begging letters, and I worked as well (as training) right up to winning that Olympic gold”.
While funding may not be an issue for Chalmers, one can only imagine the intense pressure that comes with being an elite athlete. In an industry where livelihoods and legacies are decided in a matter of milliseconds, it’s no surprise that data found by the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that up to 35% of professional athletes encounter a mental disorder during the career.
As a young athlete still acclimatising to the world of elite sports, Chalmers shows a clear understanding of the toll that the sporting lifestyle can take: “I mean, it happens to a lot of athletes in this sport. They get to a certain level, like they go to the Olympic Games, or they get a medal somewhere, and they’re like, ‘Oh, well that’s it. Like, that’s all my goals or my ambitions – I’ve completed it.’ And so then they’re not putting 100% into training anymore, and then it’s kind of a downhill from there”.
As Chalmers discusses the emotional price that is so often paid by athletes, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22 years old himself. Though there’s only a year’s age difference between us, I can’t help but feel significantly younger than the Team GB hopeful, who’s insightful responses to my questions paint a picture of a man who has learnt a great deal from his short time in professional sport.
My positive assessment of Chalmers’ character is echoed by Guernsey Athletics’ Head of Sport Development, Tom Druce, who has worked with the hurdler since he was 15. When I ask Druce about what sets him apart from the Guernsey athletes that have gone before him, he is quick to mention the Chalmers’ strong sense of character: “Ali is very good in that respect and very resilient guy, very focused as well. Quite often he doesn’t really see the negative potential outcomes. I think he’s sort of guy who will always see what could go right, rather than what could go wrong.”
Druce continued, adding: “You don’t need to do much with a guy like him, you just need to offer a little bit of guidance. He genuinely has done such an amazing job on his own”.
When pressed on his aims for the future, Chalmers doesn’t mince his words. Medalling at the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest is the immediate goal, though he does not shy away when asked about the Paris Olympic Games in 2024: “That’s the dream, to be an Olympian – I think any kind of athlete would say that. Of course I don’t just want to be an Olympian, I want to make the final of the Olympics. I mean, you never know, I’d be two years older, kind of stronger, fitter, (in a) better place mentally probably”.
Discussing the alure of the Paris games compared to Tokyo, he allowed himself to fantasise: “It’s gonna be absolutely beautiful. It was a shame in Tokyo how (the games) were kind of forgotten about and there wasn’t any crowds – all the stress about COVID, it was just horrible. So I think a lot of athletes will be gunning for the Paris Olympics.”
Though a tall order it may seem, should Chalmers achieve his Olympic dream he wouldn’t be the first person from his household to represent the nation at Olympic level. His older brother, Cameron, ran for Team GB in the 4 x 400m relay last year at the Tokyo games, finishing 14th in his heat and providing a clear benchmark to be reached for.
Druce opts for a slightly more reserved approach when asked about the younger Chalmers’ Olympic hopes, though admits that even at the age of 22, he has already become an influential figure in Guernsey: “It obviously is important that all athletes aim for the stars and then they might land on the moon, as the saying goes. Alastair I think has got an amazing chance (of Olympic qualification).”
“We’re doing quite well for an island of 60,000 people, and my job now really is to use Alastair, for want of a better word, as an inspiration to others. He’s a really good guy to put up there and say look what he’s achieved.”
At the end of my chat with Chalmers I recall his post-race interview at the Commonwealth Games, when he joked about how he hoped the island would build a statue in his honour. Laughing as he cast his mind back, he told me of how the Bailiff of Guernsey had refused to comment on the matter as, according to Chalmers, he was “playing hard to get because he wants a gold medal.”
After spending time with Chalmers, it’s easy to see why the likes of Druce rate him so highly – his confident, positive energy is infectious. And if a gold medal really is all that is required for an Alastair Chalmers statue to be built, one can’t help but feel that the people of Guernsey may not have to wait too long.
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