COLUMBIA – Missouri sprinter Kenneth “Tre” Chambers, a three-time captain, wants to lead by example.
The trouble is, he hasn’t been able to.
It doesn’t feel like that long ago, he said. He used to be able to finish his 200-meter sprints in about 21.5 seconds, which earned him all-conference marks during his freshman season in the Big 12.
Back in those days, when he was a freshman with All-America team dreams, things were different on the team.
He was different, too.
At the time, there was no reason to think he couldn’t attain his goals.
But times change.
Chambers lost his sophomore indoor season to a major strain in his left hamstring. The injury prohibited him from training for two months, but he was able to return for the first outdoor meet of 2012.
The following week, he was back to a full training regimen when he felt a "pop" in that hamstring — a small snap that set him back nearly two years.
As he rounded the turn, midstride, he heard that horrible sound.
“It was over from there,” Chambers said.
Acts of friendship
Chambers spent most of his time in March and April of 2012 in the training room or at a house near campus, which he shared with other runners.
The house was about 10 hours away from Colorado Springs, Colo. – home for Chambers.
“I was dealing with being injured, and being away from home finally sunk in,” Chambers said.
It was the low point of his career, he said.
Luckily, help came from the basement.
Ricky West and Merid Seleshi, distance runners who shared the basement, became Chambers’ “little family.”
“We’re so involved in track, you end up talking about track; it kind of consumes you,” Seleshi said. “But we could hang out, do other things, talk about things not just track.”
They played cards, watched television and went out together on the weekends.
These seemingly mundane acts of friendship were essential in helping Chambers overcome the brutal psychological blows that came with being injured.
“Immediately, it’s like you died — like you’re going to die,” said Rick McGuire, the director of sport psychology for intercollegiate athletics at Missouri. “It’s similar to the experience of coming to grips with death.
“Because something has died. This season has died, the dream, all you worked for for a while, has died.”
With competition no longer an option, a large part of the athlete’s identity dies as well. McGuire and Tigers coach Brett Halter said American society places too high a value on sports, which tempts the athlete to do so as well.
“Somehow, our society has gotten sports so big that if you want to be somebody, be an athlete,” Halter said.
Chambers called not competing the most challenging part of his life thus far.
That’s why he needed those guys in the basement.
If he couldn’t be an athlete, Chambers needed to at least be able to be a college kid.
Chambers was not medically cleared to run again until October of his junior year. He started the fall training session out of shape and behind.
When the indoor season came around, he felt like he was still playing catch-up.
Then, that left hamstring gave out and strained again. This time, it only set Chambers back a few weeks, but he could feel his season slipping away again.
Chambers met with Halter, and they decided his predominant role that season would be as a leader.
“If he couldn’t do it, he wanted to make sure everyone around him could do it,” Missouri sprint coach Carjay Lyles said.
Missouri sprinting didn't miss a step.
Markesh Woodson, a freshman at the time, became a school record holder, Southeastern Conference indoor champion, and an All-American during both the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“Whatever we think about (SEC) football, trump it up times 100 for track,” Halter said. “It’s remarkable that Markesh was able to come in and do it as a true freshman.
“And that was supposed to be Tre.”
Chambers and Woodson are both from Colorado and have known each other since Chambers was 16.
“Going into my senior year, I thought I’d have state wrapped up,” Chambers said. “All of a sudden, this kid from a high school 10 miles from my house ran the best time in the state.”
Woodson was the only runner able to beat Chambers that season. When he got to Columbia, Chambers made sure to tell the coaching staff about the latest phenom from Colorado Springs.
A few years later, there was Woodson, getting every award Chambers thought would be his.
“It just shows you his character," Halter said of Chambers. "His baby comes in and steals the glory, and he’s good with it."
Lyles said the athletes build off each other well, and they both learn from each other. There is really only one thing that sets the athletes apart.
“It’s nothing physical. Tre’s just as fast, just as strong, just as powerful,” Lyles said. “Markesh just has a refusal to lose. Those injuries have not yet bred that mindset where (Chambers) refuses to lose.”
Returning to the track
The Missouri track and field team has 118 members, and Chambers described it as “clique-y."
Within the sprinting clique, Chambers is the dad.
He is the only male senior sprinter, and there aren’t any juniors. He works hard to provide his young teammates with something he didn’t have when he was their age: A sense of community.
If the sprinters aren’t studying or sleeping, Chambers said they’re usually together. It’s the same model West and Seleshi provided for him two years ago.
Chambers brought that framework with him to his first meeting with Lyles, who came to Missouri in the fall of 2013.
The new coach had a one-on-one conversation with each sprinter on the team, and he asked them what the program could do differently.
“Everyone else wanted to know what Mizzou could do for them,” Lyles said. “Tre wanted to know what we could do for others.”
Chambers brought up community service and problems in his teammates’ living arrangements.
Chambers admits that he wasn’t always so selfless. His injuries forced him to turn his focus outward.
“It takes a person pretty comfortable in who they are to be magnanimous and throw yourself behind another person,” McGuire said. “Not just rooting for their success, but helping them be successful.”
McGuire, however, also said that it’s almost impossible to know whether the support is genuine. It can just as easily be a scapegoat for the fact that athletes can’t perform themselves.
Lyles also said support for the team could be a facade used to hide doubt.
“He was dealing with a confidence issue on whether or not he could compete on this level,” Lyles said.
Since Lyles arrived, he has worked to help Chambers believe in his abilities.
“He had a rough two years; that’s just the reality of the situation,” Lyles said.
Chambers had an “amazing” fall, Lyles said, but hasn’t been able to build off that this spring.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Lyles said. “He’s put up numbers in training that don’t equate to his performances.”
For Chambers, getting back from injury just meant getting back to the starting line. His progress from there will depend on if he can get those past setbacks out of his head.
Chambers ran a 22.54 on Feb. 14 in Fayetteville, Ark., .94 seconds off the career best he set on an indoor track as a freshman. It was nearly 1.5 seconds behind Woodson's time in the 200 meters, too.
There's plenty of ground left to make up for a sprinter Halter once thought of as Missouri's superstar.
He hopes to be back in freshman form, and hopefully better, by May or June.
Just in time for NCAA regional qualifying.
"Whether I'm injured or not, my goals have not changed," Chambers said. "I'm hoping to leave here as an All-American. I came here to do that."
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.