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Across 41 year age gap, an Olympic hopeful and a Senior Games champ have partnership that sprints

Coach Marcus Chambers and senior masters athlete Madonna Hanna in Tacoma, Washington.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
Coach Marcus Chambers and senior masters runner Madonna Hanna in Tacoma, Washington.

Not every Olympic story is happening in Tokyo this week. Take for instance two runners in Tacoma. He's a 26-year-old former Oregon Ducks standout, now a professional quarter-miler. She's a 67-year-old baby boomer who began sprinting barely a decade ago. Together they overcame various personal disappointments and sorrows to make a winning combination.

For the past five years, pro runner Marcus Chambers had a picture in his head of where he wanted to be this week: at the start line of the men’s 400 meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics. That dream crashed and burned at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

"I tried my best. I pushed my body as hard as I could," Chambers said. "Sadly, my body kind of broke down a little bit towards the end. It just wasn't my year, just wasn't my time."

Instead, while Team USA and the rest of the world’s best were rubbing the sleep out of their eyes after the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, Chambers was 5,000 miles closer to home at the Washington State Senior Games near Olympia, where he could be found track side at Tumwater High School coaching someone else onto the winner’s podium.

"Two gold medals!" enthused Madonna Hanna, holding up the shiny hardware she captured under Chambers' guidance. Hanna handily won the women's 50 meter dash in the age 65-69 category in 9.03 seconds. Then she came back an hour later to win the 100 meters for her age bracket in 17.54 seconds.

"Our original plan was for me to contact him in Japan to let him know my results," the retiree said during a joint interview with her coach this week as they sat in the shade of a tree following a high-intensity workout. "Sometimes things happen and you have to make the best of it."

"I think it's a good lesson, especially for young people, that when you go through something, you can have a tiny little pity party, but find a way to help somebody else while you're going through what you're going through," Hanna said. "I felt that was the beauty of that day, the message of that day."

Now, Chambers and Hanna are targeting another podium finish at the 2022 National Senior Games in Florida. Also known as the Senior Olympics, it is for athletes aged 50 and over. In other words, people who have seen life's highs and lows.

"With my severely ruptured Achilles (in 2014), the surgeon said, 'Uh, because of your age, you're not running anymore. You will not have any explosive speed,' Hanna recalled. "Well, guess what!"

Chambers is Hanna's second coach. The first was her husband, who died of cancer in 2018.

"My husband passed away, and still wanted me to run," Hanna said.

The widow was introduced to the much younger pro runner the following year by a physical therapist they both knew. Chambers was a six-time NCAA All-American at the University of Oregon, where he graduated in 2017. He does a little bit of youth coaching now on the side back home in Tacoma as well.

Chambers and Hanna practiced good form for sprint starts at the Silas High School track in Tacoma on Monday.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
Chambers and Hanna practiced good form for sprint starts at the Silas High School track in Tacoma on Monday.

"At first, it was really just me, coach. Me being her coach, we meet up once a week," Chambers said. "I tell her what to do. She knocks it out. We both go our separate ways."

Then one week at practice, Chambers mentioned he was interested in motivational speaking. Another time, he mused about building his own brand. Hanna, whose last job before retirement was as a high school teacher, had an opening to live her mantra of "lending a hand, taking a hand and sometimes being carried by the love of strangers."

"What did you expect, Marcus, when I said, 'Oh, I've got a marketing background, fashion, manufacturing, promotion, the whole thing.' What were you expecting?" Hanna asked, turning to her coach.

"I expected her to come to that next practice with a piece of paper — whether it was written or typed — with just some ideas and some things to think about," Chambers answered. "But, I tell you, she came with this thick booklet of papers. Oh, wow. Every single paper was filled with what the future could hold, what the plan could be."

They are still working through the life plan for the younger half of this inter-generational partnership. He was cagey about whether there is a fashion line coming, or a restaurant, a speaker's bureau, or what.

In the meantime, Chambers said he can't bring himself to watch much of the Tokyo Olympics live on TV because he thinks about what could've been.

"Honestly, it's hard. It's hard," Chambers sighed.

But he does have a new goal: to qualify for next year's World Track and Field Championships.

"This hiccup of this year not going the way as planned is not putting me in a position of being done," Chambers said. "I'm nowhere close to being done. I have a lot more left."

"The dream doesn't stop. It doesn't stop," Hanna agreed. "You know, if it's a mountain, you find a way to get through it, over it."

Conveniently, the 2022 outdoor world champs — the next biggest thing to the Summer Olympics in track and field — will be held at Chambers' alma mater, the University of Oregon's Hayward Field.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.