New Zealand race walker Alana Barber has seemingly emerged from nowhere to make the World Championships team for Beijing. Steve Landells discovers more about the Aucklander’s meteoric journey.
Arguably, the most significant moment in the astonishing rise of Alana Barber (pictured above #111) happened a little over a year ago while living in the Northern English city of Leeds with her partner and fellow Kiwi race walker Quentin Rew.
Each morning the TV producer typically walked the 10km from her home into work . Yet one particular morning gleaned an unexpected result. Feeling good on the training walk it was only after the receptionist commented “you are a bit earlier than usual” did she realise quite how good.
“When I looked down at my watch it was, wow, I’ve turned up ten minutes quicker than I usually do.”
It was no fluke. At her next training session she was knocking out 1km reps at an average 20 seconds faster than she had ever done previously. It was as if someone had suddenly sprinkled magic dust over the Kiwi.
The evidence of her overnight improvement was first backed up in a race 12 months ago she walked a jaw-dropping nine minutes faster than her previous PB with 1:43:46 to place second at the British Grand Prix of Race Walking at the historic English city of York.
Since that competitive breakthrough, the personal bests have continued to tumble with a national record time of 1:35:07 in Adelaide in February enabling her to win a call up to the New Zealand team for the World Championships in Beijing.
“I feel like I deserve it,” explains Alana of the call up. “If would say to any athlete, if you enjoy it and put in the hard work, your time will come.”
Athletics is in Alana’s blood. Raised in Manurewa in South Auckland, her mother, Shirley Barber (nee Somervell) finished seventh in the 800m final at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and is today still an active masters race walker aged 68.
Alana was very aware of her mother’s athletics achievements as a child, however, she was never pushed into the sport – in fact her parents’ easygoing approach to the sport was exemplified during a school sport’s day at Hillpark Primary School in her native Manurewa.
“I was very feminine and throughout my primary school years I refused to wear shorts,” she adds. “One year I turned up in a massive denim dress and won the 60m sprint,” she adds with a chuckle. “It was so inappropriate, but for my parents athletics was something you did for fun.”
Later attending Diocesan School for Girls she had some running success. She reached the 800m finals at the National Secondary Schools Track and Field Championships and placed second over the two-lap distance at the Auckland Championships but for a couple of years was more focused on rowing, where she won a bronze medal in the eights at the prestigious Maadi Cup.
Later studying a communications degree and majoring in television at AUT University, she continued to train as an endurance athlete. Yet frustrated by a series of persistent injury niggles and under the persuasion of her mother – now a long established race walker – Alana, then aged 22, decided to give race walking a crack.
“Up until that point, I’d always frowned upon race walking as a silly sport, but my knee could not handle the mileage of constant running,” she explains. “My mum advised that race walking could be a good way of keeping my fitness up while I was injured. She said you can always returning to running, just give race walking a go and I’ll never bug you about it again.”
Alana was instantly “hooked.” She had experienced a little race walking aged 11 and quickly picked up the technical requirements.
Significantly, Alana also found that by race walking the injuries disappeared.
On her race walking debut, she claimed victory over 10km at the 2009 New Zealand Road nationals in 53:35.
“I found that with race walking I could keep going at a good pace for a long time,” she explains. “I enjoy working my body hard and I am curious to see how hard I can push myself and how much potential I have. That’s what keeps me going.”
In her early years in the sport she performed consistently well on the domestic scene and it was as a part of the tight-knit race walking community she was soon to met Quentin Rew - the pair started dating in 2011.
For Alana, Quentin, a 2012 Olympic race walker, has many “unique” qualities and post the London Olympics the pair decided to settle in Leeds by the British Race Walking Centre in an effort to further their respective athletic careers.
“Quentin has been such a good influence on me,” says Alana. “He has taught me that if you really want something all you need is to work hard and you can control your outcomes.”
Also during her time in northern England for the first time she was taught how to train. She was exposed to strength and conditioning, sports psychology and all the other supplementary elements which form part of an elite athlete’s regime.
It was out of a combination of all these factors that in early 2014 everything “clicked.” The South Aucklander’s nine minute improvement in York gave her the belief that Rio was “definitely possible.”
She returned to her native New Zealand last year and dipped below 1:40 for the 20km distance for the first time at the ANZ Long Distance Walks Championships on a filthy day in Devonport recording 1:39:01 - a performance she described as “a real confidence booster.”
Suddenly the thought of qualifying for the Beijing World Championships loomed into view.
Since then Alana’s staggering improvement has continued apace. In February, she lopped almost four minutes from her lifetime best and trimmed 52 seconds from Gabrielle Gorst’s New Zealand 20km race walking record with 1:35:07 for fourth at the Oceania Race Walking Championships in Adelaide.
Last month in Taicang in China she placed a highly respectable sixth in 1:35:38 at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge up against a world-class field and also had her selection for the World Championship team for Beijing confirmed, where she will join her boyfriend, Quentin Rew
“All my life I’ve wanted to represent New Zealand because my mum shared her amazing experiences and told me about this great lifestyle (as an athlete), “ she says. “It will be amazing to experience the World Championships together with Quentin. That’s definitely special.”
Self-coached, Alana trains largely out of the Auckland Botanical Gardens in Manurewa and in and around the rural Auckland town of Clevedon, and she appreciates she will need to step up her weekly training load of around 90km a week in an effort to improve further.
She does not plan any major international races before Beijing but does intend to spend three weeks living in the altitude house at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, where athletes enjoy the dual benefit of living at altitude for 16 hours per day but training at low altitude.
So what does the 27-year-old fledging race walker believe in possible at the World Championships?
“I haven’t quite worked out what is a realistic placing for me,” adds Alana. “I don’t think we’ll see amazing times in the heat of Beijing. I want to be competitive. I don’t want to be making up numbers. It would also be good - no matter the conditions – if I could break my own New Zealand record and keep improving.”
Beyond Beijing, the Racewalking Auckland athlete is targeting a top 16 place at the Rio Olympics which she believes is “definitely achievable” yet she also has half-an-eye on the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
“The Commonwealth Games are particularly special to me because my mum competed at them,” she explains. “That Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast will almost be like a home Games and it gives me something to focus on. I would really like to have my big moment there,” she adds with a smile.