by Kelsey-Lee Barber

Going into the last round, I was in fourth place. But even though I was two metres behind the top three, I was excited. Why?

Because it had become clear in my mind exactly what I needed to do.

Mike, my husband and coach, had instructed me after the fourth round to give myself a little more space on the runway. My best effort to that point had been 62.95m, but that wasn’t going to be enough for a medal. He told me to come back a couple of feet and transition on the runway a little smoother.

I hit a better throw in the fifth round, 63.65m, but as soon as I released it I turned, looked at Mike and made a face. So close.

He told me to stop riding the brake, to let it happen and just throw the javelin. That might sound basic, but it's coaching in its best form: when the simplest cue makes it so clear in an athlete’s mind what needs to be done.

I knew I had a couple more metres in me and when I released that jav in the sixth round, it just snapped off my fingers. I knew it felt good. At that point all the medal positions were at 65 metres and when I saw it flying through the air I thought to myself: this is definitely over 65.  

That feeling, right there, was why I first fell in love with the event.

I was 12 at the time, in year seven of school in Canberra, and back then I competed in just about everything. Over the next couple of years I leaned more towards the discus but in 2008 I won the schools games in Canberra and that was it: the javelin was what I wanted to pursue at Olympic level.

There was something about it that clicked with me. I loved the way it felt and the event caught me hook, line and sinker.  

Kelsey-Lee Barber ()

The roots of my Olympic dream went way back.

My early years were spent in South Africa and my family moved to Australia in 2000, shortly before the Sydney Games. I remember the hype of it, everyone talking about the various events, and it sparked an interest in the nine-year-old me. I realised then it was possible to be a professional sportsperson. I wanted to be an Olympian.

It came true 16 years later, in Rio, but that season was more of a nightmare. In February I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my back and I remember sitting down with the doctors, the strength team, the physios and with Mike, deciding whether it was possible to rehab in time for the Olympics. We decided it was.

I got to the start line in a place where I wasn’t sore, but I just didn’t have the underlying training to throw the distances I wanted. I was knocked out in qualifying.

When Mike and I reflected on 2016, the big lesson was that you can mentally be all in but unless you’ve got the training behind you, you’re not going to get the results. I went in hoping things would fall into place. They didn’t.

But I knew if we stayed at it, one day we’d get it right.

Kelsey-Lee Barber ()

I met Mike in 2014. He was initially a biomechanist at the Australian Institute of Sport and on the build-up to the Commonwealth Games that year he was helping me out with some filming and analysis. Later his name came up as a potential coach in a discussion with the high-performance director and I knew it’d be a good fit.

These days, of course, we’re not just coach and athlete but also husband and wife.

Those lines can get blurry at times because athletics is part of what we love, but we’re both aware that when we start to talk about it too often we can call each other out: “Okay, that’s enough javelin talk for tonight, let’s watch a movie.”

We’ve always been diligent to separate work time and home time and it works because I have so much respect for Mike as a coach. When I rock up to training, I’m there to listen, to learn, and for that partnership to be holistic in the way I act as an athlete. When it comes home, we try to leave coaching at the door.

After Rio, we had a really hard reflection on what we were doing and we had a really good build into 2017. I had a breakthrough in my consistency, often throwing over 64 metres, but I just never got that big throw away. In 2018 we consolidated that without doing anything special.

Mike always said I had the horsepower to throw it far, but I just never quite lined it up – until last year.

Looking at 2019 on paper, it seemed like I had this perfect lead-in to the World Championships: I went in ranked second with a big PB of 67.70m in Lucerne a couple of months before.

But in reality, there was a lot happening behind the scenes that we kept on a need-to-know basis within my team. Six weeks out, an old shoulder injury flared up and I was struggling to complete sessions. The volume of throwing was severely lacking but the competitions I had set me up with the confidence I could do it on the day.

Kelsey-Lee Barber ()

Unlike 2016, my feel for the javelin, for the positions I had to hit on the runway, was so clear in my mind. It came down to mental resilience, building up that belief I could get the job done.

In qualifying, I felt really confident I’d throw the auto mark and sail through but that wasn't the case. Championships can do that to you. There are so many new challenges: three rounds of throwing in a big stadium, with different timing in warm-ups, call rooms, and so many more girls than you're used to competing against on the circuit. There’s always extra pressure.

Thankfully, I got through with a 61-metre throw, but I walked away frustrated. When I met Mike, we agreed to close the book on that competition, aware that it wasn’t great technically and my emotions had been heightened. We'd unpack it after the final.

But by then things felt very different. In the final on that Tuesday night in Doha, my sixth throw came down at 66.56m, putting me into the lead. There was a great rush of euphoria and adrenaline when I saw the mark, but it soon wore off when it hit me that there were three more throws to sit through.

As they went through I was like, “Oh wow, I’ve definitely won a bronze medal” to “I’ve definitely won a silver”. Then, when the last throw came down, it was, “Oh my goodness, I’ve just won the World Championships”.

Kelsey-Lee Barber ()

The energy and adrenaline came rushing back and I remember Sara Kolak coming over and hugging me, telling me to just breathe.

It was so comforting and that’s one of the best things about field events, especially the women’s javelin. We’re all competitors but the fact you can stand there with a friend and they will be there for you in moments like that, it’s awesome.

Over the past few months, Mike and I have done what we can to make sure that feeling isn’t a once-off. It took some time to wrap my head around the Olympics being postponed, to ride the emotions of what it all meant, but once I did we sat back and reassessed what we could achieve this year.

We had to make sure our training during this period was really good quality and had reasoning behind it, that we weren’t just training for the sake of training. I usually train at the AIS in Canberra but once the lockdown happened, everything had to be done off-site. We set up a gym in our garage and did some of our sessions at the local oval.

Once I got a routine in place, the motivation came back.

Over the past week, restrictions have slowly been eased in Australia so we hope we’ve gone through the hardest part, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to compete later in the year.

Right now it’s all training goals, but it’s nice to know we’re working towards competitions again.

Whenever they start up, the lesson I’ll take from last year is the value of self-belief. My whole career, I believed that I could one day win a world title, but last year was when I finally matched my body to that belief.

The lesson now is to hold on to that belief. Because even in situations when you're down to the last throw, sometimes that's all you need.