Auckland Race Walker Alana Barber Retires
Commonwealth silver medal-winning race walker Alana Barber has formally announced her retirement from the sport.
The 34-year-old, who represented her country at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and set 14 New Zealand race walking records, has decided to move on and start the next chapter of her life.
“It was hard decision to make because athletics had been such a huge part of my life,” explains Alana.
“The biggest motivation for me as an athlete has been the curiosity of seeing how fast I could go. Particularly over the past few years I’ve pushed myself as hard as possible and searched for ways of improving. I’ve put everything out there, but hand on heart I feel like I have no more to give.
“I just felt having come to the end of the Olympic cycle, it is the right time to retire.”
Auckland-based Alana made her final competitive appearance when placing sixth in a 20km race walk in Alytus, Lithuania in June.
The daughter of Shirley Somervell, who finished seventh in the 800m and fifth for New Zealand in the 4x400m relay at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, Alana first tasted race walking at the age of nine.
She competed as a race walker for several years before taking up middle-distance running with Papakura AC and later Auckland City Athletics – where she reached 800m finals at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships.
Alana also won a Maadi Cup rowing medal but re-engaged with race walking at the age of 22 on the recommendation of her mum after picking up a knee injury running.
Having already learned the technique as a youngster she made rapid progress and within a year of returning to the sport she landed national silver and bronze medals in the 3000m track and 20km road championships, respectively.
Nonetheless despite her initial success she quickly plateaued and she adds: “After re-starting the sport at 22, it was a novelty. I got the hang of it really quickly, it was motivating to win races but then that wore off.”
Struggling to find that next step on her career development she relocated with Quentin Rew, the three-time New Zealand Olympic race walker, to live in England in 2012. With a modest 20km race walk best of 1:57 at the time – almost 25 minutes shy of an Olympic B qualifier – life as an international athlete seemed a million miles away for the athlete then aged in her mid-20s.
“To be an Olympian, I probably should have been showing more promise by the age of 25,” she adds with a laugh. “It was frustrating because I knew I could do better, I just needed the guidance and the patience.
“One of my first international competitions in Lugano, Switzerland in 2013, I was embarrassed by my time of 1:55 – despite it being a PB. A Portuguese Olympic coach at the post-race lunch asked me how I did and I mumbled ‘not that great one hour 55’. He replied with ‘Oooh, one hour 45 minutes that’s not good! Don’t worry you will have better races’.”
Working full-time as TV producer in Leeds at the time it was her good fortune to train with a group at the British National Centre for Race Walking based in the Northern English city. It was here she upped her mileage, worked on her strength and conditioning and in 2014 produced a dramatic overnight improvement.
Competing in a 20km race walk in York she decimated her previous best my more than nine minutes to record 1:43.46.
“Having that breakthrough shocked me,” she adds. “Progression sometimes is a funny thing.”
Leaving England she took the decision alongside Quentin to relocate to Melbourne to come under the guidance of Brent Vallance – who has coached a string of world-class race walkers.
The rapid improvements continued. In February 2015 she set a national 20km race walk record of 1:35:07 in Adelaide, before finishing a highly-respectable sixth in Taicang at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge. She qualified to compete at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing – where she massively exceeded expectations in the 20km race walk, finishing 18th courtesy of a New Zealand record of 1:33:20.
“I was so excited to be wearing the Black Singlet for the first time,” said Barber of competing in Beijing. “I was ranked last out of the 50 starters but ended up coming 18th. It was very hot, but it turned out I handled those extreme conditions really well.”
In December she capped a huge breakthrough year on the international stage by scalping a further 30 seconds from her national 20k race walking record in Melbourne.
The improvements continued in 2016. At the World Race Walking Team Championships in Rome, Alana trimmed a further two seconds from her national 20km race walk record and secured selection for the Rio Olympic Games.
Making her Olympic debut she finished 35th in the 20km race walk in Rio and added: “From the age of nine I had wanted to compete at an Olympics. All my dreams come true.”
In 2017 she showed great consistency placing tenth in the season-long Race Walking World Athletics Challenge before going on to enjoy the finest season of her career the following year.
She opened 2018 with a bang, setting a national 20km race walking record of 1:32:19 in Adelaide before two months later earning the biggest achievement of her career to win Commonwealth 20km race walk silver in Gold Coast.
With many predicting an Australian clean sweep of the podium – Alana executed a perfectly-judged race to finish second and earn a much cherished podium finish.
“It was great to be reunited with my British race walking friends whom I trained with in England and my Australian friends that I was race walking with at the that time.
“It was the highlight of my career, which was made all the more special because my family were there to witness it.”
The following month, Alana backed this up by setting another national 20km race walking record of 1:31:32 for 23rd at the World Race Walking Team Championships in Taicang.
In 2019 Alana continued to perform internationally, placing 27th in the savage heat and humidity at the Doha World Championships.
“It was the toughest conditions I’d ever competed in but it was real experience to try and push your body through that.
“One of my favourite memories of my career was being at the New Zealand pre-camp (pre 2019 World Championships) in Cyprus. It was such a fun experience.”
The arrival of the global pandemic made life tough for Alana. Separated from her Polish partner and coach, Damian Blocki for an 18-month period her ability to train and compete had been compromised.
This year she competed several times overseas – recording a best 20km race walk time of 1:32:40 in Hungary but she fell shy of the auto qualifying standard for Tokyo.
Alana, who is currently completing a psychology degree, intends to stay connected to the sport and coaches a group of junior race walkers in South Auckland.
The Race Walking Auckland athlete, who won seven New Zealand race walking titles in her career and who currently holds the national records for 20,000m walk (track) and 20km race walk road, looks back fondly at her career accomplishments.
“I’m really satisfied with what I achieved,” she says. “It was a dream come true to represent New Zealand and win a Commonwealth silver medal. I feel very fortunate to have travelled around the world, training with different groups learning about the variety of approaches to training. Using my experience from seeing how the best in the world train, I hope Damian and I can use our skills to help the next generation of athletes.”
Words: Steve Landells (Athletics New Zealand)