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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 28 October 2020
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'Sitting in the hospital, tears flowing down my face... it was physically hard, but mentally was totally different'

Irish sprint star Phil Healy is ready for a massive 2020 after a challenging 2019.

“I PARKED IT. I had a little, mini-break, I came back better than ever and I’m literally just waiting to race again and kick off on Sunday.”

Phil Healy talked the talk early last week, and certainly walked the walk at the weekend (Or rather, ran the run. Like an absolute bullet.)

On Monday morning, the Irish sprinter was fully confident that the best is yet to come after a tough 2019, and she laid down a huge early-season marker in Athlone six days later.

Her 200m time of 23.28 — in her first competitive outing of the season — put her third on the Irish indoor all-time list, and was just 0.11 off the national record. The video snippet that’s been shared time and time again on Twitter over the past few days gives you an idea of just how blistering of a run she produced in the midlands, and it’s made even more impressive when you consider the challenges she faced last year.

“Everything has gone really well this winter,” Healy told The42 last week. “The signs are showing that there’s a performance ready to come out. It’s just about getting the races in, executing, and hopefully the time will show then as well.”

The Cork native is surely pleased with how Sunday’s showing at the AAI National Indoor League Round 2 went, ahead of a massive 2020 with the Tokyo Olympics looming.

*** 

It’s quite ironic that Healy’s 2019 season-threatening injury came about while she was walking. Walking home from another successful session whilst warm-weather training in Malta last April.

The incident in question occurred at the end of the first week of the fortnight stint, and it was nothing she could ever envisage happening. Especially not after her promising start to the season which saw her build on a life-changing 2018.

The Irish women’s 100m and 200m record holder, or Ireland’s fastest woman, got her season off to the perfect start with a 400m victory in Vienna. European Indoors didn’t go just as smoothly, as a tangle with an opponent before her kick in the semi-final basically knocked her out.

But there was an early outdoor season indicator that had her feeling positive about the summer ahead. She clocked a 23.04 200m at the Irish University Championships in April, which was just shy of her 22.99 national record.

aib-future-sparks-festival-launch Irish star sprinter Phil Healy. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

“I was ready to kick on,” she enthuses. “That was a massive sign because it was absolutely freezing cold, it was my fourth race of the weekend and it was early on the season.”

But just days after, everything changed as disaster struck on the southern European island.

“We were walking through Valletta, which is the old city, and I just stumbled on the tiniest of steps,” she recalls. “I knew straight away that something was happening.

“We went straight to the hospital, didn’t even go back to the hotel because I knew there was something wrong.”

Healy’s coach, Shane McCormack, had been in contact with her physio, Emma Galvin, so the Bandon woman was prepared for the doctor’s confirmation that she had a fracture in her foot.

“Emma had called it before I had even seen the x-ray, she knew what it was going to be,” the 25-year-old notes. “I didn’t have to get surgery, which was a massive bonus. It was just millimetres away from having to get surgery.”

Still though, it was an absolute nightmare.

101 thoughts running through her mind, Healy’s big target was blown out of the water.

“I was sitting in the hospital, counting down the weeks until World Universities because that was always the aim,” she remembers clearly. “A medal would have been the main aim there as well, and setting that stall out especially when I had run 23.04.

23.04 would always have medalled. Sitting in the hospital with Shane, my coach, tears flowing down my face, and we had 12 weeks to the day that the World Universities were on. We were like, ‘Will we make it, won’t we make it?’

“I was kind of caught up because I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to put me in a boot today.’ I thought I could just walk out. That realisation of leaving with crutches and a boot hadn’t set in.”

Understandably, she was down in the dumps, but McCormack did his utmost to lift her spirits. Together, they accepted the situation at hand and agreed that they had no choice but to make the most of it.

Onward and upwards, they’d battle through. No rest for the wicked.

phil-healy-after-the-race Healy after the 200m final at the World University Games. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It happened on a Thursday, the Friday was just about recovering and getting myself back together, and the Saturday I went straight back into training,” Waterford IT Masters student Healy grins.

I stayed in Malta for the last week, just to get a bit of sun and boost up on Vitamin D, and I trained every single day. There was a period of four weeks straight where we trained every single day, twice a day, and sometimes three times a day.

“It was really, really challenging.”

From that Saturday, 20 April, it was full steam ahead under the Malta sun. Well, the shade, more like, as she got straight back in the gym and hit the ground running.

No injury was going to get in Phil Healy’s way. Her determination was like no other.

“I had the boot on so I was rowing with one leg in the strap and one leg to the side,” she explains as she reflects on her recovery training. “It definitely made things a lot harder.

“Even cycling, I had one leg to the side, I could only pedal on one. I couldn’t press through the foot because I would feel the pain. There was an awful lot of that.”

Her return to Dublin brought a visit to Santry Sports Clinic specialist, Johnny McKenna, who ordered her out of the boot straight away to push her recovery on. From there, it was normal procedure on the bike, aqua jogging — “but I’d feel it if I touched the bottom, that pain used to run through my foot — and building herself up on an anti-gravity treadmill.

This was all focused on mustering up confidence and getting her coordination back.

Slowly but surely, she returned running. It was all very gradual, and no easy ride, Healy assures.

“When I couldn’t run, that was when it was easier because you had no other choice, but when I started coming back running, I found it hard. What would have been easy was now really hard. 

“I had problems with my hips, they were slightly tighter because of the way I was walking and that. I didn’t have a flow in my running. I had so many cuts along the sides of my calves just from my legs hitting each other, that was [after] six to eight weeks where I hadn’t been running.

You lose your coordination pattern in that time — well, I did anyway. That made it harder to come back.

“Everything took a lot more effort, but I was pushing through the whole time and I was fighting to get back because I knew the weeks were counting down to World Unis.”

phil-healy-on-the-way-to-finishing-4th At the 2018 European Athletics Championships. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

She was certainly up against it, and this was like nothing Healy had ever experienced before. But lots of different strands of her life, on and off the track, came together to help her through.

There were plenty of bad days, and lots of tears, but the Rebel speedster was in the best possible place, with the best possible people around her, to get her back to her optimum.

“It was mentally tiring and draining,” she nods, “but I had the support network around me. Shane even did some of the sessions with me to pull me through. Especially the gym ones, so that we would share the pain together, and we had each other there.

He’d come down from Wexford to Waterford to me at seven o’clock in the morning and we’d go aqua jogging and things like that. He was a super support, and he had everything laid out before we had even come back to Ireland.

“Even physios, doctors, sports psychologists, physiology; everyone was there to support me in the network around me.”

Yet, that didn’t stop the doubts in her own head at times.

“Two weeks before World Unis, I was like, ‘I’m not going… I’m not going to put myself out there in a good light.’ You know the way you just have those thoughts in your head? Really, I was going, but to myself I was like, ‘I’m actually not.’”

But one week later — the perfect time — everything came together. 

“Things actually clicked,” she remembers of the feeling ahead of flying to Naples, Italy, in early July.

There she was, at the destination of her big 2019 aim after coming through hell and back in the 12-week build up. It wasn’t over just yet, though.

The warm-up track was a good 15 minutes away from the stadium, we were put in a taxi and that was the most nervous drive that I’ve ever had,” Healy notes. “I didn’t know if I was able to do it again.

“You’re putting yourself straight into a World Universities set-up and I hadn’t raced since our own National Universities. It’s a big stage to put yourself out there on for your first race back.

“When I crossed the line and it was 23.46, it was such a relief knowing that I could race again. It was just about taking it on from there. I probably lacked races under my belt to be in those medal positions, but to finish sixth was a massive achievement for me.”

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phil-healy-celebrates-after-the-race Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Just making her return to competitive action was one in itself. 

The battle against her inner thoughts continued through the summer, though, as World Championships in Doha in late September became the big target. 

“It was physically hard the whole season, but mentally was totally different,” she continues. “No matter what it is — say I’m doing exams or whatever, I would put everything into it and when I stop, that’s when I have a mini-crash.

“As the season went on, we were still ploughing through but I was nearly racing events more mentally than being physically able.”

That said, she shone at the Irish National Championships in Santry in July, winning the 200m in 23.33, before again sparkling at the Morton Games in August and performing well at Cork City Sports.

She recalls a training session before the latter, and prior to leaving for European Team Championships, that told otherwise: “Nothing was going well.

I remember sitting at the track and there were tears, again, flowing down my face and we were debating whether we should go to European Team Champs or not. (spoiler: she didn’t.)

“I used to run a race and then I’d be flat for a week to bring myself back up again. I just physically wasn’t able because mentally, I was so tested and fatigued. Sometimes you can’t help that, to bring yourself back up.

“Doha was probably one step too far. I put myself out there and tried to be the best that I could possibly be, but I fell short of what I hoped to do.”

A fifth-place finish in her heat in Qatar was nothing to be frowned upon, though, especially not after the un-idealistic season she had endured. She just ran out of steam.

And she knows, more than anyone, how much it has all stood to her in the long run. 

I broke my foot on 18 April. For so many people, that could be a season done,” she stresses. “To come back and come sixth at World Universities, run 23.3 at Nationals… that would have been my PB two years ago, so to be running those times has been absolutely super.

“Say if I did have to have surgery, the season was a write off, but even without surgery, so many people don’t come back from an injury like that. To come back, run well and finish sixth in a world final… I was seventh two years ago, being perfectly injury-free.”

aib-future-sparks-festival-launch Healy is an AIB ambassador. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

She’s just that now, and has fire in her belly at the start of a massive 2020.

Everything happens for a reason, and with the Olympics drawing closer, Healy is ready to attack qualification head on, while still taking it all step by step.

Coming back last year was nearly essential in terms of collecting points because I could hold my World University ranking points,” she says. “I needed to come back and race.

“Then to have those high-quality races that I did do and the times to match them as well, will help me going on this year. I think I’m ranked 39 out of 56 at the moment.

“The winter has gone really well, there have been absolutely no injuries thank God. It’s just about waiting and actually opening up. I will run more 200s indoor, we’ll run 400s here and there as well. I’m just excited to get racing again, knowing that I’m in the best shape that I have been, and just ready to take it on.”

To be in the position she’s in now, where Olympic qualification is possible, is a surreal feeling, she adds. Healy would not have believed that a few years back.

“Absolutely not,” she smiles. “Definitely not.

“But the standard used to be 23.20 before, I would have ran that so many times already and it’s mad that you actually have to step it up now another level again because the standard is 22.80.

It’s a dream for everyone to go to the Olympics, but to be actually lying in that position and that’s what you’re training for at the moment… you hear this word floating around, but you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’m going for the Olympics’.

“I’m racing in Athlone at the weekend, I’m not racing the Olympics. It’s step by step along the way and then Olympics is the final one.”

Step one in Athlone complete, so. Onward.

Irish sprinter, Phil Healy was at the launch of the AIB Future Sparks Festival 2020, an innovative careers festival for senior cycle students, which is taking place on 26 March in the RDS. For more information, please visit www.AIB.ie/FutureSparks.

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Emma Duffy

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