Her first interest in athletics started in Primary School as a keen sprinter. She even used her interest in sport to fend off bullies at school: “Anyone who bullied me at school, I invited them to a 60m sprint challenge.”
I guess my competitive spirit started at a young age. My parents joined me up to the local running club and I just did it for fun, turning up once a week but never taking it too seriously.
Daughter to Shirley Somervell who was a middle-distance specialist for Great Britain and New Zealand in the 70’s, influenced her to take up sports: “My parents were never pushy, but Mum would take any opportunity to show off her medals, achievements and photos, giving me an idea of what the exciting life an elite athlete was like.”
When her mother got to the age of 50, she considered a transition from running to power walking, as running was proving to be too hard on her body. She found that it was not fast enough, and later took up Race Walking and at twelve years of age, Barber would go along with her mother to try it out.
After suffering from reoccurring soreness in the knees from running, Barber then took up Race Walking: “I just thought this could be a way of keeping fit without aggravating my knee. After a few months of doing it, I really got into it. The people were friendly and the whole concept of the sport was challenging: the fact that you don’t just go from A to B as quick as you can like running. You also need to keep this specific technique no matter how tired you get. This made the sport extra interesting.”
We asked of her ability to develop her technique and maintain it as she progressed into the sport: “It’s true that when you learn something at a young age, it sticks with you. So at 22 when I got back into it, I picked it up quickly. Of course there are always things to work on, as it’s more of a technical sport than some people realize. You’re forever trying to make your technique efficient, fluent and as fast as possible without breaking the rules. Every race you’re being watched by judges and picking up bad habits can cost you the race.”
Ahead of the 2015 IAAF World Championships of Athletics in Beijing this summer, Team NZ has a contingent of 13 athletes of which 2 are for Race Walking and she shared her thoughts on the development of the discipline in NZ: “I am racing in the women’s 20km, and Quentin is racing both men’s 20km and 50km events. Both of us hold the national 20km records, so at the elite level we have as much depth as ever.”
In the last two decades there have been other elite walkers such as Craig Barrett, Tony Sargisson, Anne Judkins, and Gabrielle Gorst. Individuals like these have similar special qualities: they are self-motivated and probably enjoy their own company with the amount of hours spent clocking up mileage. They have also needed to be resourceful as knowledgeable race walking coaches aren’t just at our fingertips.
We have some younger athletes that do have these special qualities. Coaches like Tony Sargisson in Auckland and John Henderson in Christchurch are helping at a grass roots level. Getting groups of younger athletes involved that show potential at athletics events, teaching them the technique and meeting regularly for training is a great start.
Throughout the 2014 season, Barber spent time training and developing at the UK Race Walk Centre and she spoke of her experience there: “I lived in Leeds for two years and trained at the UK Race Walking Centre which is based at Leeds Met University (now Leeds Beckett). This was a crucial part in my development from a club level walker/national champs medalist to a NZ representative.”
“This was the first time I was regularly training with a group under a coach. I was exposed to strength and conditioning work and a scientific aspect of training which I had never thought about before.
“It was the training group there that got me to the next level. I was constantly pushed by athletes fitter than me, which enabled me to rise to their level. It’s easier to get faster when you are working with people whose company you enjoy.”
Her progression over the recent season has spoken for itself and Alana Barber is proving that she can ‘go the distance’ by booking her ticket with team NZ for Beijing. She is currently in Australia putting in her final block of training before heading off to the big stage: “I’m currently completing a month’s training at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra leading up to worlds. I’m living at their altitude house and using their gym, recovery centre and heat chamber. Canberra also happens to be where some of the best female walkers are, who are also training for world champs.
“Beijing has an average high of 29.7 degrees and 77% humidity, hence the importance of the AIS heat chamber. Despite these conditions I want to at least break my NZ record. Also getting a step closer to qualifying for Rio Olympics next year will be important. 1 hour 31 is our A standard and 1 hour 33 is our B standard.”
The journey ahead in Race Walking looks very bright for Alana Barber and while she has several years ahead of her we asked her of the ultimate highlight of her career so far: “The highlight would have to be when I broke the NZ 20km record at Oceania champs this year in Adelaide. The girls that beat me in this race happen to be based in Canberra, which is just another reason it’s great to be doing my world champs preparations here. I always favour training with people faster than myself.”
TrackField97.com looks forward to following Alana Barber as she makes her IAAF World Championship debut, and also throughout her journey to Rio 2016.
Facts about Alana Barber
Best known performances
“My mum went under the qualification time for the 1976 Olympics but never went due to injury. Competing at Rio and getting to do what she missed the chance of doing would be fantastic. I want to get a top 16 placing there as well. In the more distant future I would love to medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. But ultimately my goal is to make a lasting impact on the sport, whether it be inspiring more people to take up race walking or working towards creating a fit and health conscious society.”
Feature by: Stewart Davis for www.trackfield97.com
Photography provided by: Terry Swan