The many walks of life of Alana Barber
Not too long after Alana Barber walked her way to a stunning Commonwealth Games silver medal in April, she was working on an ‘adventure farm’ in southwest Wales. Feeding the donkeys, goats and miniature ponies, and sometimes helping out milking the cows.
No, she hasn’t fallen on hard times.
Barber was simply earning her keep - staying with fellow international race walker Heather Lewis on her dairy farm and adventure park in Pembrokeshire.
The payback for tending to the livestock was being able to train with Lewis each day on the local country roads.
It’s typical of the way 31-year-old Barber makes her way around the globe these days; staying with friends she’s met on the world race circuit, and taking them out for long walks.
It’s simply a matter of having to - when there’s no one at home in New Zealand to train with, and no one to coach you. Especially if you want to be in the leading pack at the world championships and Olympics.
So every Kiwi winter, Barber flies north. She stays with the family of her boyfriend, Polish race walker Damian Blocki, in Poland and Germany; or at the house Blocki rents in Ireland, where his coach is based.
“I feel like the world is such a small place, because I have places dotted everywhere that I can call home,” she says.
Next month, she’ll be in Bogota, Colombia, walking at altitude for a month. She will spend all of January across the ditch, training at the Australian Institute of Sport under the guidance of Barber's coach of the past three years, Brent Vallance. He’s actually the only coach she’s ever had.
Right now Barber is back in her real home, in Auckland’s Manurewa, living with her parents, Shirley and David. They were famously there to see Barber’s gutsy race on the Gold Coast.
Shirley finished eighth in the 800m at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, and was the inspiration for her daughter's dream to represent New Zealand in athletics.
David, not a fan of travelling the world like his daughter, had made his first trip out of New Zealand in 45 years to watch her win silver. He joked to reporters at the finish-line: “I had to get a new passport – they'd never seen a passport so old.”
Barber loves being home with her family, and training around her old haunts in Auckland’s southern sprawl. We meet at the Auckland Botanical Gardens, where she’ll go for a 10km walk through the spring blossoms later in the afternoon. She’d already been walking the roads in rural Clevedon that morning, constantly wary of the quarry trucks rumbling by.
“I go to the effort of picking locations that have beautiful surroundings. It makes the mental battle easier. You might be sweating, puffing and dying, but, hey, you’re surrounded by flowers!” she laughs.
Barber has been walking (at least, competitively) for eight years, but before the Gold Coast – where she bravely battled sapping heat and cramping to end up on the podium – she hadn’t really made an impression on the Kiwi public.
She'd been a disappointing 35th at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a victim of ‘Olympic fever’ - overwhelmed by the moment and the village atmosphere.
But she trained intensely for this year’s Commonwealth Games, preparing for the heat she knew she’d encounter, and finally got to add the medal that was missing from her mother’s collection on the mantlepiece.
Shirley Barber, nee Somervell, was always Alana’s inspiration. As a girl, Alana was a natural runner; her favourite event the 800m, “just like Mum”.
“Never in my mind was it impossible to go to the Commonwealth Games like she had,” Barber says. “There was never any reason why I couldn’t be there, competing for New Zealand.”
In her late teens, she ran longer distances, but at 22, she was troubled by a knee that gave her pain when she ran.
“At the same time, Mum started race walking. She urged me to try it, to keep up my fitness,” Barber says. “But I was reluctant to give it a go.
"For one, there was hardly anyone doing it, and it drew a lot of unwanted attention.”
So she tried it for the first time on a 400m track where no one was watching. “It felt different, but it felt good. And my knee didn’t hurt,” she says. She got the hang of the technique quickly, and never returned to running.
At this stage in Barber’s life, work took priority over athletics. With a degree in communications, she worked in television as an assistant director, before moving to Wellington to join an audio studio. She kept competing, although she had few competitors.
“I didn’t have a coach, but I was pretty self-motivated. I’d walk home along the waterfront after work,” she says. “But there were so many distractions, and my dream of going to the Olympics was never going to happen if I continued this lifestyle.”
Then she met Quentin Rew, a young physiotherapist who was the country’s top male walker. He also had lofty dreams.
They became a couple, and when Rew made the team for the 2012 London Olympics, they decided to move to England. “We knew the only way to become Olympians was to train with Olympians,” Barber says.
She got a job as a producer for a post-production company, but also trained with British race walkers, gleaning much from them.
“After 18 months, I had this massive improvement in the time it took me to walk to work – quite a few minutes faster than normal,” she says.
She quit her job to focus on training. As she shaved minutes off her personal best times, she attracted the interest of Athletics New Zealand – and drug testers. “They came all the time, at 7am. It was overwhelming and confronting,” she recalls.
Barber wore the silver fern for the first time at the 2015 world championships in Beijing. “I was ranked last – 50th in a field of 50 – which was okay, because I had my pace and my goal.” She climbed up through the field to finish 18th. “I couldn’t believe how many people blew up. It gave me huge confidence,” she says.
As a national carded athlete, able to tap into performance support, she realised she needed a plan for the Rio Olympics - and a coach. She clicked with Australian Vallance when they met at a walking workshop.
Vallance also coaches Rew and Jemima Montag, who beat Barber for this year’s Commonwealth gold. “Jemima and I had trained together, so that was one of the highlights of the race – both making our coach proud,” she says.
Although Barber and Rew parted two years ago, they still encourage each other’s careers. “I always hear his voice on the side-lines cheering me on,” she says.
In such a small sport, where rivals are often training mates, Barber gets upset seeing walkers disqualified – in a sport where perfect technique is as critical as getting to the finish-line first.
It happened when she saw Australian race walk veteran Claire Tallent sitting distraught on the side of the Gold Coast course with 2km to go. Judges had red-carded Tallent for a third time just as she’d taken the race lead.
“When I first saw Claire on the ground, I thought she was injured. Even though you’re competing, you worry for each other,” she says.
Disqualification is less of a concern for Barber as she gets fitter and stronger.
“When I’m tired, or trying to push the pace, my shoulders and my arms go up, and I look like I’m hitting myself in the face. Potentially my legs will go high with them," she says. (The two rules of walking are that you can never have both feet off the ground at once, and your leg must be straight when it first makes contact with the ground). "So I’ve got to keep low and relaxed,” she says.
Since the Commonwealth Games, Barber has continued to gather pace. She broke the New Zealand 20km record – and set a personal best time of 1h 31.32m - at the World Cup in China, and then was seventh in a race in Spain.
She’s focused on qualifying for next year’s world championships in Doha, and then the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Heat will be a factor in both events – although the world champs women’s walk will start at 11.30pm. “I’ve never raced in the dark before.”
Barber is thinking about life after athletics too, starting a family and a change of career - she’s now studying psychology.
And she also wants to ensure there’s a generation of walkers following in her footsteps. These past school holidays, Barber travelled the country holding walking clinics for teenagers.
“They came along to try race walking, or get help with their technique. It was a chance to show them my silver medal, tell them about the opportunities the sport has brought me, and encourage them to keep going,” she says. “We need to keep the momentum going.”
There’s a group of young walkers Barber meets up with twice a week, preparing them for the national secondary school champs in December.
“The best thing I can do,” she says, “is to inspire someone by what I do.”