Above: Alana Barber finishes for the silver medal in the 20km race walk at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo by Scott Barbour / Getty Images Sport.
Earlier this month, Alana Barber landed a memorable silver in the 20km race walk at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The Aucklander reflects on her success with Steve Landells and looks ahead to her aspirations for the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang, China next weekend.
The right coaching structure, a top-class training partner and a daily nap provided the backdrop to Alana Barber’s memorable silver medal at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
And now the Auckland race walker is aiming for another top international display when the quality steps up several notches at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang, China (May 5-6).
It is impossible to downplay the significance of Barber’s medal winning performance for the Black Singlets on Gold Coast. With the race walks opening the 2018 Commonwealth Games athletics programme, there is little doubt Alana’s display in front of her parents, Shirley (Somervell), who competed in the 800m and 4x400m at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, and father, David, was a huge boost to the team and a huge moment for the woman who only took up race walking eight years ago aged 22.
“Winning silver has certainly given me more confidence,” says Alana reflecting on her silver medal winning display on Currumbin Beachfront. “It has made me more motivated to continue to train hard, although I am still the same person. I still train in the same way, I have the same friends but winning a Commonwealth medal has maybe created more opportunities.”
After placing 35th in the 20km race walk at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Alana missed out on selection for the 2017 World Championships but continuing to share her time between Australia – where her coach Brent Vallance is based – and Auckland her preparation for Gold Coast went well.
Based out of Canberra’s Australian Institute of Sport in January proved ideal preparation for the heat and humidity of Gold Coast but she has noticed her training has improved over the past six months or so due one critical factor.
“My recovery between sessions had improved,” she says. “I was able to handle 20km sessions in a morning and then another walk on an afternoon much better.
“What has made a big difference is I have prioritised sleep during the day,” he said. “I had always done so in the past, but not after every hard sesssion. It was like I was embarrassed to do so. Now I realise it is important and even if something else crops up, I know I can’t commit to it because of my nap time (of up to an hour-and-a-half).”
Being based in Australia for significant chunks of her preparation also brought an additional benefit as training partner to 20-year-old rising star of race walking and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Jemima Montag.
“This was key and an important difference between me doing well and not doing well (in Gold Coast),” says Alana, who spent the final weeks of preparations ahead of the Commonwealth Games living in Jemima’s family home. “I push myself harder when I train with someone and I enjoy it so much more.”
Nonetheless her rising confidence took at a knock in February at the Oceania Championships in Adelaide. Alana had set a national record of 1:32:19 but finished fourth behind three Australians; Beki Smith, Jemima Montag and Claire Tallent.
“I was disappointed because I knew I was in great shape, but I had only broken the New Zealand record by four seconds, which I had set on the same course 12 months earlier,” she explains. “I was afraid that this might be a foreshadowing for what would happen at the Commonwealth Games and the Australians would go 1-2-3 but my coach reassured me that there was going to be something bigger to come and I was going to make another breakthrough.”
Holding on to this belief after a slow first 1km lap on Currumbin Beachfront the Kiwi took control. Insisting she didn’t want to continue at such a slow pace she hit the front, increased the pace and “shook up” the field. By 8km is was just Alana and the three Australians in contention in the front group. However, Smith, the 2018 Oceania champion, was to endure a tough race and dropped off the pace to leave Barber in one of the medal slots.
As the progressed Montag and Tallent opened up a gap on the Kiwi but she was determined to keep in the gold medal picture.
“I felt good (when sat in bronze),” she said. “I could see Claire in front (at the time she was in silver) and I didn’t want to let her get too far away because sometimes when you become isolated you can lose focus and your technique can suffer. I still hadn’t settled for bronze.”
At around 5km to go, however, Alana’s gaze turned from the front to those behind her as she started to suffer from an “uncomfortable groin cramp.”
“I started to worry and I thought, what if it gets worse? I then asked Brent (Vallance my coach) how far away is the girl behind me (Bethan Davies of Wales) and it was 1:20.”
Lifted by the electric atmosphere around the course she received great support from both Kiwis and Australians and recalls at one point the New Zealand fans cheering so loudly “I couldn’t hear myself breathe.”
She also had an additional boost with the presence of her parents at the course – a particularly special moment for the family because it was the first time in 45 years her dad, David, had travelled outside of New Zealand.
With a little over 2km remaining and seemingly secure in bronze the race then suffered a dramatic twist when Tallent, the woman who had dislodged Montag from the gold medal position, was disqualified while leading.
“The first time I became aware of it were when fans were telling me, “you’re in silver.” I then saw her (Tallent) crumpled on the ground crying,” she says. “I know how hard she had worked and you do feel sorry and emotional for her. When your friend is on the ground it is also a reminder that we are all vulnerable to picking up bad habits with our technique and I had to stay focused on my own race.”
Admitting “the tears rolled down my cheeks” on the final lap she grabbed a flag from both her dad and Athletics NZ High Performance Director Scott Goodman in the final stages as she crossed the finish line in silver.
“I was proud and emotional,” she says. “I was also really happy to share the podium with my fellow training partner, Jemima and also Bethan (Davies), who I used to train with when I lived back in England.
“Yet looking back I felt the race could have gone any way. I could have missed out (on a medal). It is not like I deserved it more than the other girls. We all work hard. It was just how the race unfolded on the day.”
However, unlike many of her New Zealand teammates, where the Commonwealth Games represented the pinnacle event of the year, for Alana it could be argued the IAAF Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang, the weekend after next, takes on event greater importance.
If Gold Coast was good for chasing medals and gaining media exposure, Taicang represents the opportunity to make a statement on a true global stage against the very best in the world and it also offers the chance to increase current funding.
“Once again (like Gold Coast) I want to do my best and know I have left it all out on the course,” she says. “I don’t want to say a placing because I can’t control what the others will do. I just want to perform well and not let the Commonwealth Games hype affect me in this race.”
Beyond Taicang, Alana hopes to race in La Coruna, Spain on what is regarded as one of the world’s fastest courses to chase a 2019 IAAF World Championships qualification mark in the women’s 20km.
Yet most of all she hopes her accomplishments can help inspire the next generation of female Kiwi race walkers.
“I’ve had a massive response on my Facebook page to people wanting to know where they can watch the next race walking event or wanting to know more about the rules,” she adds. “The best thing for me would be for someone else to emerge and break my New Zealand record. Although, I would want to wait until after I retire for someone to break it,” she adds with a smile.