Above: Alana Barber in the 20km Race Walk at the 2015 Beijing World Championships. Photo by Getty Images.
Alana Barber faces the biggest test of her career in eight days when she takes to the start line for the 20km Race Walk at the Rio Olympics. The Aucklander tells Steve Landells why the changes implemented over the past 12 months have made her a better athlete.
When Alana Barber defied a pre-race ranking of 47th to finish a magnificent 18th in the 20km Race Walk at last year’s Beijing World Championships, it is hard to believe how she could have been much happier.
Coming perilously close to a top 16 spot on her major championship debut and executing her race plan to perfection in the heat and humidity of the Chinese capital, the performance unquestionably represented the high point in a race walking career which had only began seven years earlier.
Yet an athlete’s instinct is always to demand more and when reviewing her performance with Athletics NZ High Performance Director Scott Goodman she realised to take the next step forward in her career she needed to make changes.
“It was a complete shock that I had done so well (in Beijing), but afterwards I realised I actually had a good chance of finishing top 16 at the Olympics,” says Alana. “Scott then asked the question in order to achieve that goal what I needed to do to improve upon and I answered ‘a good coach.’”
Although she previously had guidance from other coaches, she was principally self-coached. Yet she realised a more structured coaching relationship would be of genuine benefit and this is where she sought out the help of Brent Vallance, former coach to Australia’s 2012 Olympic 50km walk champion Jared Tallent.
Located in Melbourne, Alana knew of his reputation in the sport and although a switch would mean relocating across the Tasman Sea, she knew it was a gamble worth taking.
“Brent is great,” she adds. “He treats every athlete as an individual and what he applies to one athlete, he won’t necessarily apply to another. I was aware certain things worked for me. He found out what I was doing and made tweaks.”
One key area identified for change was her weekly mileage. Previously sitting at a relatively light 90km per week, Vallance sought to up the endurance load for greater gain long-term.
Incorporating twice a day training sessions, Alana admitted adjusting to the new demands was initially tough.
“When I first stepped up to 110km per week, I found I was stiff constantly and the quality really went down,” she says. “Doing 100km+ a week I stopped having PB training sessions. I needed that confidence and I was worried I wasn’t doing many fast sessions. Yet Brent always said “don’t worry about it, you’ve done the work’ and that I should have faith in myself.”
Since the Beijing World Championships, the Kiwi – who divides her training time between Melbourne and Auckland - has also worked hard on some of the additional elements to her training. For the first time in her career she has specifically worked with a strength and conditioning coach. Todd Carlon, who is a physical preparation instructor at Maribyrnong Sports Academy in Melbourne has helped in an area she believes is critical to allow her to withstand her increased training load.
Now able to box squat 90kg – almost double her bodyweight – Alana adds: “The core work, glute work, hamstring work and weights has allowed me to become stronger. I’m training greater mileage each week so having that strength base makes me less vulnerable to injury.”
She has also developed a close working relationship with HPSNZ nutritionist Tanya Hamilton and physiotherapist Jane Oldershaw. Tanya helped with the “one-percenters” by experimenting with performance boosters such as taking caffeine in a race. Jane has been able to provide regular treatment “which is a big reason why I have got through the added mileage without any major injuries”.
With a new team behind her, greater mileage in the bank and a more structured all-round approach, Alana approached her goal of achieving two B standard Olympic qualification times of 1:33:00 for the 20km Race Walk with confidence.
She made an early impression, dipping ten seconds under the mark at the Australian Championships Melbourne while also wiping 30 seconds from her New Zealand record set in Beijing in the process.
Targeting five more races in 2016 to gain the Olympic standard on one more occasion seemed a relatively routine process, yet it was to prove a tougher task than first envisaged.
At the Oceania Championships, held in Adelaide in February, Alana was in a heavy training phase and recorded a modest 1:35:29. She next moved on to Nomi in Japan and although she executed a much better display she says “poor maths skills” saw her fall a frustrating 11 seconds short of her target as she stopped the clock in 1:33:11.
Admitting she started “feeling the pressure” with just two more planned races to attain the standard she fell sick on the eve of her next outing in Taicang, China and took the decision to withdraw from the race.
With all her eggs now in one basket to crack the 1:33 barrier at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome in May she knew there was no room to fail.
“I think I just forced myself to be confident and talked as if it would happen,” she explains. “I wrote on my arm all the split times I needed to complete each kilometre with the aim to go one or two seconds under what I needed to do for each lap. “
On schedule at 15km, the Kiwi started to tie up and cramp in the final 5km, but digging deep with her Olympic ambitions on the line Barber completed her task to place 26th – just 12 seconds under her target time.
“I was in tears (at the end of the race), it was just a relief,” she says of not only achieving the Olympic B standard for the second time but also trimming two seconds from her national record to post a time 1:32:48.
Later confirmed as a selected athlete in the second wave of athletes announced by the NZOC to compete in Rio, Alana had fulfilled a lifetime ambition to compete in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
It was particular poignant moment for the Barber family because her mother, Shirley Somervell, who competed in the 800m at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch missed out on her dream of competing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics though injury.
“My mum is my idol and really pushed me to reach this level,” she explains. “To be able to do something she never quite achieved is a really nice feeling.”
Having enjoyed an excellent five-week bout of training in St Moritz, Switzerland ahead of the Rio Olympics the 29-year-old is hopeful she can produce her best. Yet she is also realistic.
“I don’t have a specific place or time in mind because there are so many variables that can happen in a 20km race walk,” he explains. “I can’t control the people I’m competing against or the conditions. The race might be run in a world record or conditions might be 35c and the time ridiculously slow. Obviously, I hope to finish top 16, but for me I’m thinking more about the process rather than the outcome.”