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'I don't think anything compares to it' - the former Tipp captain who's now a world bodybuilding champion

Leanne Barrett reflects on her journey and delves into the unique world of bodybuilding.

LIKE MOST OTHER Irish children, Leanne Barrett’s blossoming relationship with sport began with Gaelic games. She always had a keen interest. 

Her childhood friends and teammates are now household names in ladies football circles across the length and breadth of the country, while Barrett has travelled a very different path. But from the same origin.

tipperary-v-roscommon-all-ireland-minor-b-championship-final Leanne Barrett on the ball in the 2009 All-Ireland Minor B final. Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

“Leanne lives about three doors up the road from me,” Aishling Moloney smiles. “She was actually one of my first idols growing up, and probably one of the best footballers to play in Tipperary then.”

There was Moloney, who’s now considered one of the best footballers in the country, and Aisling McCarthy, her talented Tipperary teammate who also plays for Australian Rules side Western Bulldogs. On top of the Cahir clubwomen, there was two-time All-Ireland winning Tipperary captain Samantha Lambert.

“We would have all grown up playing everything together really; camogie, basketball, football, everything,” Barrett, the then-Tipperary minor football captain and club dual star, and now-amateur world bodybuilding champion, tells The42.

All in all, we were probably about eight years together. No matter what it was, they were always striving to be at the top of their game. It probably started from there, my love for and passion for whatever sport it was.

At the age of 16, she was struck by every aspiring player’s worst nightmare. She snapped her cruciate, and everything changed.

“That was a little bit of a turning point,” she nods, explaining how there was an absence of medical knowledge and support at the time. She tackled her 12-month road to recovery head on, and began educating herself whilst rehabbing. She enjoyed the independence, but returned to the team once again after a year out.

“But I was just never the same,” she frowns. “I never had the same pace, I didn’t feel.”

Starting out

Five years ago, she moved to Dublin for work with recruitment agency Morgan McKinley and left her Gaelic games roots behind her. Having been involved her whole life, Barrett was now looking for something new.

Bodybuilding appealed to her after doing some background research on the whole phenomenon, and she reached out to Kildare-based professional, and her now-coach, Vinny Craine.

“I got in touch with him to see if he could help me,” she recalls, “even just with a basic programme to start off with and see how I went. To be honest, from there, I had no intention of getting into the competition side.

“It was really just for me, to work independently and to get stronger essentially. I knew then when I started with him that I got every ill grá for it.”

She put in the hours of training in the gym, and she did her homework as her love for her new obsession grew. She researched top athletes in the game, and what they do to succeed so she knew exactly what she was getting herself into, should she compete.

barrett22 On stage for mandatory posing in New York. Source: Leanne Barrett.

“I had a very clear view from the outset of what exactly was required, and the sacrifices,” she notes. “I talked to a few people who had competed, and their big thing was, ‘God, it’s hard work… commitment, you need to have a lot of passion for it because really, it does take away everything. You wouldn’t want to have anything else going on in your life. This has to be your absolute sole focus.’”

She knows all about that now. 

But back to then.

Nothing really scared me about it,” she adds. “I didn’t fear anything and it didn’t seem to be anything too big to take on, so I said I’d give it a shot. From the GAA and that, I had enough tools in the bag to learn from my losses anyway. So if things didn’t go the best or how I wanted them to go, I knew I could handle that.

Her love grew and grew, her fascination that you could control the outcome of everything you did. And the passion was burning deep within. It didn’t need to be a competition, but she knew she needed something to keep her interest levels sparked. 

Barrett didn’t actually start lifting weights until 2017, but from there, she decided to press on with competing. 

“I knew I was progressing at a steady enough pace, so with a little bit of added pressure and a goal in mind, I was curious to see what I could achieve,” she adds. “Just even for myself.

When I knew that the reasons why I was doing it were right for me — I was in a good mindset, I had a good, solid base to start off with, I felt comfortable going into it — I said to my coach, ‘Look, I’m interested in competing.’

A potential debut show in 2018 caught her eye. It was a 16-week prep, and that was her “initiation” into body building.

Afterwards, she knew she had made the right decision. This was most definitely for her, and it was all worth it. That feeling of hard work. That feeling of wanting more. 

“I don’t think anything compares to it,” she smiles as the memories come flooding back.

This was only the beginning. 

“That’s one thing about the sport, you get direct results,” Barrett adds. “There were so many things about the competition that I was nervous about, the stage was one thing, and the performance of it. My on-stage persona is very different to my off-stage personality.

After the first competition, even when I went on stage that was still one fear I had. It’s like when you’re playing other sports. No matter how well prepared you are, you have one opportunity.

“I learned a lot about myself in that competition and in the next competition… and in the next competition, I came in top 10 but I remember coming off the stage with some regrets. I just didn’t think I performed as well as I could have.

leanne3 Posing during routine - part of the criteria is the performance of a routine which she performed to Adiemus . Source: Leanne Barrett.

“I just said, ‘Right, this is it. I’m never going to have this feeling again. The next time, I’m leaving nothing behind me.’”

Learning and growing

Adjusting to the whole performance and posing aspect of the sport was weird for Barrett at first. She adored training and seeing results, but this was a whole new challenge.

She soon came to realise just how important it was, though.

“I’m not that type of person,” she insists. “I’d probably describe myself as quietly confident, but I wouldn’t love to showcase. 

“I absolutely love going to competition and meeting the other competitors and people who are passionate about the sport. The stage is not my favourite part but I’ve learned that’s where it’s won and lost.

“It can make you fearful, but it’s your one time. You have a routine, you have a few mandatory poses and even though training is a huge aspect of it, you have to be prepared to get on the stage and showcase.

You have to stand out, you have to own the stage, you have to show your strong points and your strong assets. If you can’t do that on the stage, there is absolutely no point in even putting yourself forward for competition.

Posing has become an absolutely vital part of her training, each gym session now culminating in 20 to 30 minutes of practice: “It was something I got used to,” she interjects, “but it was something that I definitely wasn’t good at to begin with.

“It was probably my weakest point. It was good that I recognised that, though. Now, I think that I’m able to kind of switch it on on stage, even though it’s not my personality. I don’t even see it as the stage any more, I just see it as a place where it is won and lost.”

She triumphed in the arena for the first time in October 2018 after four months of serious training, before representing Ireland at the European Championships in Spain the following May. 

Barrett secured a top-10 finish in the Body Fitness category there, but shortly after, changed her set-up. She joined the Natural Body Federation Ireland [NBFI], headed up by the “super” Mark Lee.

“The reason why I went into the natural federation was they have a really high standard of drug testing,” she explains. “It’s really important for me to be a role model to younger people coming into the game.

nbf2 The 2019 Natural Bodybuilding Irish Team with Mark Lee. Source: Leanne Barrett.

“You probably haven’t met a huge amount of people in the game, so that shows how small it is in Ireland. It is very early days, it’s only developing. So I think it’s a good federation to begin with. Athletes are completely at the heart of what they do.”

The glamour and beauty side of the sport isn’t as important at these competitions, a competitor’s overall physique is what earns results.

Tan is considered because it highlights that, as is the isle or bikini suit — it’s as important as her trophy in reminding her of memories of her journey –  but makeup and hair are not as influential, Barrett details, adding that she feels her “hard physique” is more suited to the natural federation.

Day to day

One may think that every day is different with regards training, diet and balancing everything, but in fact, everything is quite similar all week round. 

“Consistency is absolutely key,” she nods, taking us through prep. “You really wouldn’t want to have a lot of change. Just keeping it so simple is the key to it.”

So, rise and shine. Wake up before 4.30am. Yes, 4.30am. 

I’m just so used to it,” she laughs. “People think I sound great when I say that. I don’t, because I go to bed earlier. It cancels each other out. Sure they’re probably still up at half 10 when I’m in bed, and they probably get more sleep than me.”

Then it’s time for a bite to eat, before training every morning religiously at 6am. Gym for an hour-and-a-half to two-hour weight session, before heading to her job as a consultant. Every day there varies, she’s sometimes in the office, other days out and about.

She knows how to manage her workload and meetings at this stage, and credits her employers for being fully supportive and flexible in meeting her needs. Cardio is done at lunch time or after work, whatever suits her schedule, along with posing. 

Her diet consists of six meals a day; mainly rotating chicken and beef throughout, vegetables would be asparagus and green beans, and clean carbohydrates come mainly in the form of oats, rice and potatoes.

At that, she’s eager to dispel a myth.

“I don’t go for weeks and weeks and not have anything,” she stresses. “I would have a cheat meal added in now and again to keep me going. You’d have to, just to avoid your body hitting plateau mode.

TRAINING A snap from training. Source: Leanne Barrett.

“A burger and chips would be my cheat meal, and a muffin before training just to replenish. A lot of people think you have to starve yourself for these things. You absolutely don’t, it’s the opposite. I have six full-on meals.

Really solid nutrition, good supplementation — vitamins, minerals and amino acids — and the right mindset is really what it’s about.

There’s that word, mindset.

Mindset

It’s certainly a mental game, and staying positive throughout the hectic process is hugely important.

In the evenings, she lands home at 7.30pm and it’s straight into preparation for the next day between meals, gear and sleep. There’s some travelling, too, with one of her three coaches based in Carlow. Plain and simply, it’s beyond tiring. 

“At the weekends, you’d be actually so exhausted when you’re in prep,” she concedes. “It’s full-on, there’s no such thing as balance, to be honest. If you have balance, you wouldn’t want to be excelling.

You wouldn’t want to have much else going on. I would miss out on a lot of social events around those few weeks of prep. A lot of people do understand it, definitely more so now. Other people still find it hard to understand the sport itself, which is fine.

“It’s a very lonely sport, it’s very isolating and a lot of it is on your own, but on the upside, it does have its benefits because you can control the outcome.”

“You have to count yourself out of most things,” Barrett says, with post-work events on Fridays coming to mind. “It’s just not feasible to keep everything going.

It’s just the way it is, and I don’t mind that. It is a lifestyle choice, it’s not just for a few weeks. Obviously during these weeks you give it 100%. It’s not like all year round you have to go full on.

But when it is full on, what does she do to keep her head in the right place?

She reminds herself again and again that she has control over the situation, and she surrounds herself with like-minded people. On lunch, she’d often meet a friend who is also on prep, and stay in touch with others. That’s pivotal.

“Your mindset is hugely important,” she agrees. “I’m quite a positive person anyway. But during prep obviously, when you do get to a very lean point, you do need to go through those few weeks where you zone off and you shut out from it a little.

lb Another snap from training. Source: Leanne Barrett.

“You have to just understand; other things are going to slide when your focus is 100% on that and you’re trying to stay hugely positive. You just have to accept the fact that you’re putting other important things on the long finger for a while.

“Once you accept that, I think you can see the end goal. You have to keep it in mind.”

Coach Craine is another person she turns to quite a lot, and he’s always reminding her of her strengths despite his job spec being to help her work on weaknesses. Family and close friends are also hugely important, as is work. And their understanding is key.

“You know when you’re almost on autopilot mode,” she asks. “You just keep going. You don’t even have time to think about it.

When you rest a little, that’s when you think about things. But I barely had any time to think, I was training so hard and trying to get everything in; booking flights, trying to get posing right; you don’t even think of what could go wrong.

“All I was thinking was what could go right.”

Winning

In the case of the World Natural Bodybuilding Championships in New York in November, everything did go right as Barrett returned to Tipperary with a gold medal, and her all-important pro card.

At the Irish National Championships in September, she placed second in a different division than usual, while Lee of the NBFI urged her to go to the UK Championships and then on to the Worlds. 

In an unexpected long year, Barrett came third in the UK and then the wheels were set in motion and precise plans put in place for the Big Apple meet four weeks later. She’s forever grateful for the opportunity Lee afforded her, and for the federation and their assistance with funding. 

“It was such an experience,” she beams. “God, it’s a bit overwhelming as well.

It was really good to get something back I suppose for the…. I don’t even look at it like it was such hard work. When people say, ‘God, you’ve worked so hard for it,’ it doesn’t feel like that.

“It’s very hard to get the same results, to really come in 100% and then in four weeks, come in at 100% again,” she continues, detailing how her coach managed her lengthy season after starting prep in June. “It’s really hard to do that and to manage it.

“He managed it in a way that I’d come in as best as I could for the UK, but really, my eyes were on the prize for the worlds. That’s really what I wanted.”

leanne barrett At the worlds in New York. Source: Leanne Barrett.

The UK has an incredibly high standard so that gave her a good gauge or where she was at, but it was still a trial run, as such.

“I knew what I was in for, so I went absolutely hell for leather then for the next four weeks. The girl that bet me in the UK, she was going to be up against me in the Worlds.

“New York was just a different experience altogether. I went over with my family, and also actually, a girl who I competed against who I met backstage at my first competition. She came over with me.

Like that, it is lonely but you still have that camaraderie that you have with other sports. That was one of my highlights: to have my family and her there with me.

That support system and inner circle is absolutely key, even now through Barrett’s off-season where everything is tailored back a small bit. Not much changes, but nutrition is higher so that’s something she has to account for. 

Onwards

Her recently-secured pro card is a “little bit of a game changer,” she grins: “My plan has just begun really. I have a lot of work to do to get to that level and a lot more learning to do. I’m just educating myself a little bit more on how to get there now.”

While her success has peaked her interest in education, she’s currently completing exams in personal training and nutrition, and is happy to take it step by step as she finds her feet in the pro game.

With those competitions staged Stateside in the likes of New York and Los Angeles, it’s no straightforward situation with plenty of expenses involved.

“The financial aspect of the sport is something I have to consider,” she admits. “It’s something before that I didn’t really think of. But it’s so expensive, everything.

“In order to reach this level and be comfortable — to think that I actually can compete, do well and do myself proud — I’ve started making in-roads and the work has begun already.

I’m totally prepared to take on the role — it might make me two or three years, I’m not sure — but I have a bit of work to do. I haven’t made any plans as of yet on when I’m going to make my pro debut, whether it will be this year or next year.

“I have to see where I am in the summer, see how I am physically and mentally, where my mindset is at in terms of whether I’m ready to compete again. It’s too early to call it.”

barrett5 A presentation of flowers from Morgan McKinley when she returned from New York. Source: Leanne Barrett.

One thing’s for sure: her former Tipperary teammates in Moloney, McCarthy, Lambert and co will be eagerly watching on, just like she’s been keeping an eye on them.

“You see that the girls are doing really well and that’s actually one thing,” she smiles, “even though I went a different route, we still always support each other. 

“Those people I’ve grown up with and played alongside, they’ve sent cards, messages, flowers… in my work place, they did a big presentation of flowers. I don’t expect any of this, but it’s really nice.

It’s not even for me, it just respects the dedication given to the sport. It was a real shock actually, that was one thing that stood out. I wasn’t expecting that when I came home, the support from everybody.

“Even younger athletes looking for a goal, some feedback and pointers – I’m happy to help anybody out. It’s great just to see younger people coming through when it’s not a hugely attractive sport. It really has to be developed a lot more here, and put out there more. But it has been absolutely great.”

It seems fitting to wrap this up with another nice input from Moloney, someone who looked up to Barrett all those years back. And still does. 

Game recognises game.

Leanne is great,” the 2019 Intermediate Player of the Year concludes. “Not only is she a great person on the field, she’s an amazing person off the field. You can see that with her body building, how far she’s gone. It’s a lot of self motivation and determination.

“She’s great, you hope that she’ll come back and play a bit for the club… I might give her a subtle hint about that sometime!

“It’s really nice to see her doing so well, especially when she’s a neighbour of mine, to keep the flag flying high around Poulmucka for ourselves.”

Originally published at 07.30

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Emma Duffy

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