Since javelin appeared on the Olympic programme in 1932 in Los Angeles, Australia has had only one Olympic medallist, Louise McPaul, who won silver in Atlanta in 1996, and two silver medals at the IAAF World Championships since 1983. But everything changed with Kelsey-Lee Barber, who took gold in the discipline at the Doha 2019 World Championships and is determined to win again at Tokyo 2020!
Putting on the best performance when it counts the most – that’s exactly what Barber did on 1 October in the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. Although she had qualified for the final the previous day on her 10th throw out of 12, she still had a long way to go after the first four rounds, with a distance of 60.90m seeing her slip to the bottom of the ranking of the eight throwers who had made the cut after three attempts, and three additional throws left to make the most of. Her fifth one went considerably farther – 63.65m – and she was in a position to potentially obtain a podium finish.
It was her sixth and last attempt. A perfect run-up and a powerful throw saw the javelin land at the 66.56m mark. The Australian was in first place! But the event was still not decided, with three competitors yet to take their turn. Germany’s Christin Hussong’s javelin reached 65.61m; Barber was guaranteed the bronze medal. China’s Lü Huihui got to 62.61m; now it was the silver. Finally, Liu Shiying, also of China, achieved 65.67m. Barber took the gold medal! She became the first world champion in javelin from her country. Liu (65.88m on her fifth attempt) took the silver medal, while Lü (65.49m, also on her fifth throw) took bronze.
“Being a world champion was a lifetime goal of mine in the sport, so to be able to walk away with that this year and when I’ve still got so many more years left in the sport – I’m so excited by that,” she declared. She added: “We all hope that, in a situation like that, we can rise to the occasion and showcase what we can do as athletes. It just gives me so much confidence going into my competitions in the future, and especially competitions on a world stage, because I’ve done it when it mattered most. I can back myself now, knowing that there’s something there that I can always tap into or reflect on.” She also acknowledged all the help provided to her by her coach and husband, Mike Barber, before her crucial sixth throw.
Dreams and disappointment at Rio 2016
Kelsey-Lee Barber, née Roberts, was born in East London in South Africa on 20 September 1991. At school, there were sports sessions every afternoon, and she did swimming, hockey, tennis and gymnastics – “a bit of everything” as she put it. She was nine when her family moved to Canberra, Australia, in 2000. “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.”
With powerful upper-body strength, she tried out the throwing disciplines, beginning with the discus and shotput, before taking up the javelin. When she won at the Pacific School Games in 2008, throwing over 44m, she said: “I had this belief that I wanted to be a sportswoman. I competed in three throwing events at the Pacific Games but, after winning the javelin, I thought: ‘this is the event for me’.” She marked her international debut at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Glasgow, where she finished third with a throw of 62.95m. After the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, where she did not reach the final, Barber was overjoyed to qualify for the Rio 2016 Games. But she had to deal with a stress fracture in her back, which prevented her from preparing properly, and her journey to the Olympic Stadium ended with a 28th place finish in qualifying.
“I had by no means the ideal preparation for Rio,” explained Barber. “I had delivered a childhood dream to qualify [for the Olympics], but until you are in that environment you 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,” she said, adding: “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.”
Her steady progression saw her throw over 64m from 2017 onwards, then win the silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on home soil on the Gold Coast. Afterwards, she married her coach who, since 2014 had led her to the top of her game, and became Kelsey-Lee Barber.
Her medal-winning season also saw her achieve the best performance of her career – a throw of 67.70m at a meeting in Lucerne (Switzerland) on 9 July 2019. This was the world’s second best performance of the year and the 12th of all time. She then wrote another page in Australian sports history in Doha, and is embarking on a new, and potentially glorious chapter, on the road to the Japanese capital in summer 2020.
Overwhelmed by various requests in her country following her World Championship title, the javelin thrower – for whom the Games are “the greatest event in any sport” – is already looking ahead to Tokyo 2020: “[Mike and I] have had a brief chat about this and what it means. To a degree, I have to try and protect my training space as much as possible because without that consistent training and continuity and routine, the results don’t come. It’s understanding where I sit now, and appreciating that for what it is, but still doing my best to protect that training environment. Especially in the lead-up to the Olympics. Rio wasn’t great for me. I really have to turn that around and make Tokyo my best, and I’m going in saying that my goal for this Olympics is to be on the podium.”