- Melissa Breen's funding battle with Athletics Australia
- Breen breaks Australian 100m sprint record
- Canberra star Breen has her eyes firmly set on Rio
The fastest woman in Australian sprinting history wanted to quit athletics in anger last year; prepared to give up her childhood dream and channel her energy into becoming a cyclist or a bobsledder.
Melissa Breen was disillusioned and frustrated with officials after being overlooked by Athletics Australia in its new funding program, and lost faith in her 100-metre career.
Everything seemed to be crumbling at once. Following the funding cut, her grandmother died, her cat died and her car was broken into. The thieves stole her training bag.
It all happened in the same week, negatives building.
Had she given up then, she would not have broken Melinda Gainsford-Taylor’s 20-year 100m record last month.
‘‘It’s scary to think that I’m 23 and I’ve thought about quitting three times. I want to still be running until I’m at least 30,’’ Breen said.
‘‘When my funding was cut, I was in tears. I didn’t want to do it anymore. It shouldn’t hurt that much.
‘‘I talked about testing for cycling. I was lost. It took me months to get back on my mission.
‘‘I had to work out why I do what I do. I’m not deluded. I know I was being erratic thinking about cycling.
‘‘I had to get back to the reason of why I wanted to do this. I don’t run because I want a pat on the back from my own federation.
‘‘I do it because I love it. I want to run as fast as I can and let my feet do the talking.’’
Breen credits coach Matt Beckenham and parents, Mike and Bev, for helping her stick to her goals. It culminated in the record-breaking 11.11 seconds run at the AIS Track last month.
The former McKillop College student will race at the Sydney Track Classic next weekend, but she will have to wait until after the Australian titles before Athletics Australia considers changing her funding status.
It costs about $70,000 a year for Breen to fund her training and international competition, but she has been relying on personal sponsors to keep running.
Breen lives at home with her parents, but doesn’t want to burden them with the costs of her career.
She trains in the morning, coaches juniors in the afternoon.
Now more sponsors are along for the ride. Asics gives her training gear and cash, Oakley gives her gear, Canberra business owner Richard Rolfe picks up some of her hotel and travel costs, AFL Western Bulldogs vice-president Susan Alberti has pledged $12,000 and Audi has now jumped on board.
She’s also had ‘‘little nibbles’’ from interested companies since her Australian record run. Beckenham doubles as her coach and agent.
Breen is a certainty for Glasgow this year, having run Commonwealth Games A-qualifying times in her past four races.
‘‘Missing out on the funding messed her around,’’ said Beckenham, Breen’s coach since 2006. ‘‘Her first reaction was, ‘what else can I do?’’’
‘‘Jana Pittman changed to bobsled … we talked about the possibility Mel could do that at one point. But she loves track and field. We made a commitment to what we were heading towards and that was the strongest thing we focused on.
‘‘She’s got a great physique for running and a natural talent. When someone like Mel rolls around, it stands out quite quickly.’’
Breen started athletics as a junior with her family all competing at Canberra events.
The gangly school kid was more interested in socialising with her competitors than beating them.
Every night she has a career debrief at 7pm with her parents at dinner.
‘‘We took the kids to Little Athletics more for the social aspect,’’ her father said.
‘‘Mel’s favourite event was the 1500-metre walk because she could chat to the other girls.
‘‘She wasn’t exceptional. Her preference for the shorter distances was because she wanted to get it over with so she could socialise.
‘‘We went to plenty of events that she came last in the heats. She wasn’t always at the front end, but she improved and eventually got through.’’
The Breen family went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the first day of the athletics program.
Twelve years later, Melissa competed at the London Olympics, the first Australian female sprinter to race at the Games in more than a decade.
‘‘In Sydney, the crowd was massive,’’ Mike Breen said.
‘‘She told us after that, as a 10-year-old, she wanted to be at the Olympics. We thought it was just a dream. But she’s got the word ‘believe’ pinned to the back of her bedroom door and she was self-motivated. There’s no magic to anything. It takes dedication and we’re proud of everything Mel has achieved.’’
Breen didn’t have her first coach until she was 12.
She switched to join the successful Beckenham stable in 2006 and made her first Australian senior team when she was 20.
But Breen faced her first major test after the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Her Australian-record time of 11.11s would have won her a gold medal. But after she failed to make the final, she agreed with Beckenham it was time to rebuild her race.
They changed every step and stride in her 50-step, 100m race.
‘‘I said to Mel it would take us three years to get it right, but I was just guessing,’’ Beckenham said.
‘‘It’s only now we’re starting to see the results. When she beat [Olympic hurdles gold-medal winner] Sally Pearson last month for the first time, that was the sign things were working.
‘‘I don’t know when Mel will reach her peak. She can still improve ... there’s no reason why she can’t go until 2028 and run her fastest, and that’s scary.’’
Breen has a custom-made ring of the Olympic rings, and wears it every day to remind her of her goal.
But at times she felt like she almost forgot how to run, and considered walking away. ‘‘I’m a very emotional person.’’
We changed everything after the Commonwealth Games, right from the first step,’’ Breen said.
‘‘It felt like I took 12,000 steps backwards. That’s when I first started seeing a sports psychologist at the AIS.
‘‘Every year I’m learning ... there’s no textbook. I was terrible at the Commonwealth Games.
‘‘Putting my faith in Matt was hard, he hadn’t done it before. But what option did I have?
‘‘All of a sudden people who had never beaten me were running faster than me. I’d forgotten how to run.’’
Breen says she lives a ‘‘boring life’’. Her day consists of, ‘‘eat, train, sleep and repeat’’ and she spends Sundays in her pyjamas as her recovery day.
But at the end of last year, her world started to crumble.
Her car was broken into and her custom sprinting spikes were stolen. A few days later, her father called to tell her that her grandmother had died.
‘‘Bad things happen in threes and dad then called to tell me Wally, my cat, had died as well,’’ Breen said.
‘‘I had New Year’s Eve at home with my parents. I didn’t want to be anywhere else and we toasted that 2014 couldn’t be any worse than last year.’’
A mystery illness derailed Breen’s season last year. She was so sick, and her kidneys were in such a bad way, that doctors in Germany considered surgery.
Her kidneys still haven’t recovered, but it doesn’t affect her life.
Since the Commonwealth Games, Breen has lost 4kilograms of upper-body muscle. Despite her imposing physique, she does no upper body work in the gym. That means no chin-ups, no squats and no arm weights.
‘‘It’s all about power. People don’t believe me when I say I don’t do anything on my upper body,’’ Breen said.
‘‘I was bench-pressing 70 kilograms before the Commonwealth Games ... you can look big and scary but if you can’t run fast, what’s the point?
‘‘I was a skinny, scrawny kid. I started doing gym when I was 15-years old and hated it. I didn’t want to get big.
‘‘But strong is sexy. It’s not like you turn into a bodybuilder. Yes, I’m muscly, but I’m still feminine.’’
After running a personal best time of 11.33s in 2008, it took four years for Breen to set another benchmark.
But she continued her rise with her run of 11.11s this year.
‘‘That was the most amazing feeling breaking that record,’’ Breen said.
‘‘I didn’t deal with the pressure very well when I was younger. I used to cry before racing against Sally Pearson. It was the nerves and expectation.’’
It took Breen 30 races against Pearson before she got her breakthrough win.
‘‘I still have respect for Sally, but something clicked and I knew I could do it. People remember great senior athletes, not great junior athletes,’’ Breen said.
Canberra businessman Rolfe jumped on board to support Breen when Athletics Australia refused to give her financial support.
There’s no set amount in the deal. But Rolfe will pay for accommodation, flights and anything Breen needs help with.
‘‘In the 100-metres sprint ... if you’re an Eskimo or in the middle of Africa, you can run 100 metres,’’ Rolfe said.
‘‘I’m not trying to belittle other sports, but as soon as the government realises funding for different sports requires different funding, you will get sensible decisions rather than irrational decisions.
‘‘When there are exceptional performances, everyone needs to take notice. With Mel’s funding being cut, that’s an exceptional circumstance and breaking a 20-year record is an exceptional record.
‘‘I think she’s capable of achieving a lot more. I think she can put Canberra athletics on the map ... I didn’t predict she’d set a new record. I don’t want her record to stand for 20 years, I want her to break it again.’’
Breen’s next goals are to break the 11-second barrier and to make the 2016 Olympic Games team – hopefully with a bit of Athletics Australia funding in her pocket.
‘‘I feel like some officials have already made up their mind on me. But that’s not going to stop me from doing anything,’’ Breen said.
‘‘It wasn’t the kick up the backside that I needed, but it’s made me wiser and grow up more. The last six months have taught me the good and bad of the sport.
‘‘Now I feel ready for anything that comes at me.’’