Describing the few days following the Rio Olympics as “pure devastation” Kelsey-Lee Barber was in a state of despair.
Badly compromised after sustaining a stress fracture of the back earlier in 2016 it was perhaps no surprise the Australian javelinist could only muster a best of 55.25m to place a lowly 28th out of 31 athletes in the qualification.
“I had by no means the ideal preparation for Rio,” explains the articulate and personable Barber. “I had delivered a childhood dream to qualify (for the Olympics) but until you are in that environment your realise that the medallists are only a very small portion of what happens at an Olympics. Surrounded by many athletes who did not achieve medals caught me off guard.”
However, the positive and upbeat Barber did not stay down for long. By the time she returned to Australia the 1.75m tall thrower set about the re-building phase for the next stage of her career and put together a plan to avoid a repeat performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“I got home and thought to myself, this is where I want to be (in future) and what I want to achieve. There are clearly things I need to do a lot better; let’s start now.”
Some three years on from her Rio heartbreak and Barber is stood on the end of the runway for her sixth round throw in Luzern in July experiencing a very different set of emotions. After claiming back to back PBs in Townsville (65.61m) and Lausanne (65.63m) she is bursting with positivity.
“I just remember this clear confidence at the top of the runway; it was like nothing else existed,” she explains. “I knew what I needed to do, so set myself up for the big throw and I was able to execute.”
Moments later the spear flew out to a world-leading mark (since surpassed by Lyu Huihui of China) of 67.70m – a personal best by more than two metres.
“I knew I was capable at the start of the year of something like 67 metres, so to throw 67.70m is really exciting because it shows the world the work and training I’ve put into place.”
Olympic inspiration early on
Born in East London, South Africa, at the age of nine Barber relocated with her family to Australia. One of her first memories of life in her adopted home was arriving in a nation caught up in Olympic fever in the countdown to the Sydney Games.
It lit a fire inside the then primary school student.
“I was first exposed to the Olympic Games ahead of the Sydney Games and that is the moment I said I wanted to one day feature at an Olympics,” she recalls.
In her younger days she tried swimming, tennis, hockey and netball and her natural upper-body strength also impressed in the throwing events at school sports days and athletics carnivals.
A decent state level thrower in discus and shot, the defining moment of her future came after hurling the spear out to 44 metres to win the 2008 Pacific Schools Games in Canberra.
“I had this belief that I wanted to be a sportswoman,” explains Barber. “I competed in three throws events at the Pacific Games but after winning the javelin, I thought, this is the event for me.”
Coached initially by Les Bottles and later Alison O’Riordan in Canberra, the young thrower continued to make steady progress but in 2012 suffered a blow after tearing the MCL (medial collateral ligament) in her right elbow.
Facing a difficult rehabilitation from the “very significant injury” she spent a whole year out of competition until making a successful return in 2013 which climaxed with a PB of 58.58m to place second at Aussie nationals.
Continuing to strengthen the elbow and making further technical adjustments, 2014 proved better again as she breached the 60-metre line for the first time, set a PB of 63.92m in Canberra and also won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in Glasgow.
Managing the husband-athlete-coach relationship
Describing cracking 60 metres as a “huge moment” she nonetheless desired change and in October 2014 left her then coach, Aaron Holt, to join her current coach and now husband, Mike Barber, based out of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.
Harnessing Barber’s natural qualities of runway speed and length on the javelin – “think of it as a little like my ability to pull the javelin back like an elastic band” – her coach has also introduced one key ingredient into her throwing mix.
“Mike has helped me rediscover my competitive nature,” she explains. “He has really promoted the fact that while we are chasing numbers and distances, at the end of the day we are all competitors trying to beat the opposition.”
The pair also married last year – not that their husband-wife coach-athlete relationship is ever compromised, in fact quite the reverse according to the rising javelin star.
“We’ve set up out marriage well for both roles and our communication is our best attribute,” explains the 27-year-old thrower. “We are very conscious to leave our work day at the door and to try to enjoy our life together without any training or javelin distractions when we are at home.”
“I feel very lucky I get to share all these experiences with Mike as both a coach and husband,” she adds. “To be able to go over to the fence and give him a hug after a successful competition makes all those memories so much better.”
After London ‘breakthrough’, Commonwealth silver
Since her Rio disappointment, Barber has enjoyed a rising level of success. She describes her 2017 season – where she finished tenth at the World Championships and improved her PB to 64.53m to finish second in the IAAF Diamond League final in Zurich – as her “breakthrough” year on the international stage.
Meanwhile, last year she claimed a silver medal in front of her home fans amid an “electric” atmosphere at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Since the 2018 campaign Barber has made one or two small tweaks, which she believes has contributed to the best season in her career so far.
“I haven’t undergone any major technical overhauls,” she explains. “I’ve simply picked up a couple of things in terms of the way some of the top girls like (two-time Olympic and three-time world champion) Barbora Spotakova and (the 2018 world leader) Kathryn Mitchell were moving.”
After securing the Australian title in April the first competitive indication she was in the form of her life came in Townsville when she hurled the spear to a PB of 65.61m to land the Oceania title. She backed this up with a 2cm improvement for second in the Lausanne Diamond League before her stunning effort in Luzern followed by a 65.85m effort for second at the London Diamond League.
“My training has shown consistency and my series of throws across all competitions has been good,” she adds. “I’ve hit a good rhythm and positioning on the runway, and I’ve held through back to back competitions.”
Next up the Australian plans to target the Diamond League Final in Zurich (Aug 29) before she targets the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha (Sept 27-Oct 6).
A lover of competing in the heat she will not be fazed by the blistering temperatures she could face in Qatar and has set herself some ambitious goals.
“Since London (World Championships) I set myself the target of a podium place and this is an opportunity to achieve that,” explains Barber, who works three afternoons a week as a gym trainer.
“With that 67-metre throw behind me I feel it (a medal) is a realistic goal, it is just a case of being able to do that on the day.”
But what does the woman with the memorable Twitter handle of thatjavelingirl love most about throwing the javelin?
“When you hit it really well the sensation at the end of the throw is a bit like cracking a whip,” she explains. “That feeling of the javelin snapping off the fingers makes me feel very happy.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF