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The first female Irish athlete in 40 years to hold both the 100 and 200m records on her life-changing year

Phil Healy chats to The42 about the changes she implemented that contributed to a career-best 12 months.

Ireland's Phil Healy pictured at the European Athletics Championships earlier this year.
Ireland's Phil Healy pictured at the European Athletics Championships earlier this year.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated at 09.22

EVEN OUTSIDE OF sport, 2018 has been a big year in the life of Phil Healy.

The past 12 months have seen the Cork native make the move away from her native county and switch college, leaving behind many friends and family in the process.

Previously, Healy spent four years in University College Cork, three of which were devoted to a degree in nursing.

“I ended up with a health sciences degree because I did an extra module to get that,” she explains.

“I was 19, 20, making the decision, if this was for me. Obviously, I had one shot at it. One thing my coach always said to me is ‘don’t look back with regrets,’ but at the same time, I was making the decision: ‘Is nursing something I want to be in full-time down the line?’

“I was doing children’s and general together, so I had more hours than the normal college student just doing nursing. We did 13-hour shifts back to back, night shifts. We used to do eight-week placement at a time. Over the year, we would have had 14-18 weeks, it depended on the year as such. Doing all those weeks back to back, it has a massive impact on training.

Then I was like, if I’m 40, do I want to be a nurse? Yes, it was a super career when I was in it and I really enjoyed it. I had a great amount of friends, but I didn’t really see myself sticking in it.

“So why stay in it now if I’m young and have the [option] to move out of it, rather than sticking with it? I had another year and a half to go to finish with it and be qualified.”

Healy consequently moved to a one-year course at the university in applied computer technology, before making the switch to Waterford Institute of Technology, where she is currently undertaking a masters in Information Technology.

She is still with the same training group in athletics, although there is a big difference. Up until her move to Waterford, her training arrangements were less than ideal. With her coach, Shane McCormack, living in Wexford and working in Waterford, a long trek was required for one or the other every time they met.

“I was up and down in Cork,” she recalls. “He’d usually leave at 5 or 6 in the morning in Wexford to meet me in Cork, or I’d come down every second week and stay down for a weekend at a time, or something like that, just to try to get things in and work together.

“It’s not easy when your coach is that far away and I didn’t have a training group in Cork, so motivation-wise, you’re dependent on yourself and your coach. I’d perform to such a high level, go into a major championship and the highlight was probably where I finished seventh at the World University Games.

“So we just made it work and then Cork had ran its course. I was finished in college. I had more decisions to make. Coming to Waterford, that’s where my training base is and I can continue my studies at the same time.”

In WIT, the scholarship student is well catered for, with a nutritionist, physiologist, physio and sports psychologist all part of her support team.

“In every level, I’ve stepped up, both academically and in a sporting way,” she adds.

It is therefore surely no coincidence that Healy has just enjoyed the best year of her career. The previous arrangements, she acknowledges, did hinder the Bandon runner from achieving her full potential.

“If I’m working two 13-hour shifts a week and trying to go to training after that, you’re up again the next morning for five or six o’clock, it’s not feasible for training. You’re tired because you’re standing on your feet all day long and you just don’t get the consistency in training, and that obviously has a knock-on effect.

“Being away from your coach as well, when I’m away from the track, my coach is basically a stopwatch, because that’s my only monitor. Here in Waterford, Shane can make tweaks [to my schedule]. Around exam time, I’m obviously tired, so he can pull things back, just making conscious decisions that were going to benefit me. So I would say the [nursing] course had an impact.

“But when I’m here in Waterford, it allows me to train basically full-time as an athlete. Last year I was in college two days a week, this year I’m in one day a week, so it enables me to get the most out of my training.”

Healy has consequently taken full advantage of these benefits. The year began promisingly. She won the Indoor 400 meters in Vienna and beat Natasha Hastings, a double Olympic Gold Medallist, in Karlsruhe a week later. The achievement led to her becoming just the second-ever Irish runner, after Fionnuala McCormack, to be named European Athletics Female Athlete of the Month. And it only got better from that point onwards.

In June, she broke the Irish 100m record in Santry with a time of 11.28 seconds, overcoming the previous record of 11.40 seconds jointly held by Ailís McSweeney and Amy Foster.

I had ran over the Irish 100m record three times before that, but the wind was over the legal limit, so the record didn’t count,” she explains.

“But the main focus of that race on a Wednesday in Dublin was to run a 400 before I went to [an event in] Geneva on the Saturday. But the conditions looked good, so we decided [to try to break the record] on the Monday. The race was on the Wednesday, we didn’t tell anyone — there was obviously a lot of interest in the national record, because people saw I was underneath it before.

“We didn’t want people knowing I was in Dublin and possibly could break it when the conditions were good. There was a lot of interest in that, so my coach and myself were the only ones that knew about it. I remember after the race ringing home and saying that I’d broken the national record, because they didn’t know that I was racing either.

“So we treated it as a warm-up run and then jumping into the 400, that was the main aim of that day — to go out and get a good run in before Geneva.”

Ailis McSweeney Ailís McSweeney previously held the Irish 100m record. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Healy would go on to lower her personal best time for the 400 in Geneva, before breaking the 23-second barrier to set a new national record in the 200m just a month later.

“We always see records as a target and something we want to break or get close to. The Cork City sports committee — they’ve shown great support for me. They’ve put on the 200 race in the past when I wanted it and it hasn’t been in the initial programme, so it shows the importance of committees like that who are there to support the athletes. Getting top-quality races in Ireland and bringing a strong contingent over from Europe and America, which brings the best out of the athlete.

We knew the signs were there for possibly a quick 200. When I was on the up, it was like: ‘This is going to be quick,’ because there was a strong headwind on the bend. So I was very relaxed and I had a quick Canadian outside me, so if I hung on to her, chased her down and held my form, a quick time would come.

“I kind of had ruled it out because of the conditions, but that was the day I broke the national record with 22.99 and it was great to break it on home turf, because there was an absolutely super crowd — all my friends and family were out to watch as well.”

Healy is the first female athlete in 40 years to hold both the 100 and 200 records in Ireland at the same time, achieving these two significant feats within a matter of weeks. She then continued a memorable year with some positive performances at the European Championships last August.

Source: nTrai/YouTube

Unsurprisingly, the talented athlete has attracted significant media attention as a result of her achievements. It was in 2016 when she first came to prominence, as she inspired a miraculous victory for UCC in the final of the 4x400m relay at the Irish University Athletics Association Championships. Her performance was so awe-inspiring that the video ended up going viral. And while she was happy with the display, Healy was taken aback by the attention it received and unaccustomed to the glare of the media spotlight.

“I hated it, to be honest,” she says. “I was like: ‘I just want to get on with my training.’ I didn’t think it was going to have the impact that it did. That was my first real dealings with the media.

“It had a massive impact and it was absolutely super and brought athletics into a really positive light. There was an awful lot about drug allegations and stuff at the time.

“But I was getting messages from people all over the world and it was inspiring them, like in a hockey match or a basketball match, or someone saw this after work and ‘it was about not giving up’. 

There were calls coming in from the Washington Post. It was being viewed three million times on YouTube and then Good Morning America had it up and that had over 50 million views — The Today Show as well in America. It was on ESPN, which had a massive viewing and it created an awful lot of coverage.

“One person said it made them get off the couch and put windscreen wipers on the car. It just had a crazy impact and it can be overwhelming, but it does quieten down after a while.”

The acclaim and media coverage has continued this year. Healy’s record-breaking achievements led to her receiving a nomination for RTÉ’s Sportsperson of the Year, alongside individuals such as Johnny Sexton and Katie Taylor, as well as fellow athletics star Thomas Barr. She also was one of five Irish sportswomen to feature on the documentary series ‘We Run the World’.

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

While being careful not to let it serve as a distraction or impact on her performance in anyway, Healy is well aware of the importance of such coverage, citing the 20×20 campaign among other initiatives that help to support athletes.

“We need to highlight it because athletics is a minority sport. We train six days a week. In those six days, I could have 9-10 sessions. So we’re working all the time and we’re not getting the backing of a full professional athlete, but we’re competing internationally, it has always been high costs and whatever, but you’re trying to balance academic life at the same time.

“So I think it’s good to put yourself out there, [so that the media and its consumers] recognise what athletes are doing and all the hard work that they’re putting in. And that goes across all sports as well — just to make athletics more recognised, and that obviously increases participation — people see what you’re doing and it may inspire others.

“My sister [Joan] was the main reason I joined athletics. She’s two years older than me and she was part of the [local] athletics club and I was there to keep her company. So she was in the sport and I kept it going, because I did camogie and football at the same time as well, and it wasn’t until I was 17 that I fully focused on athletics.

You always see different athletes achieving certain things. You’re like: ‘Oh, I want to be like them.’ Nationally and internationally, everyone has their own models, and I used to always look to Ailís McSweeney.

“Body image is obviously a big thing for girls when it comes to dropout rates, but to see that we can work hard and we always look good and this is what sport takes, that’s what we need.”

For all the positives she can take from 2018, however, Healy cannot afford to rest on her laurels in the coming months. Qualification events for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin in July. If she can emulate her record-breaking feats and personal-best times next year, it will be enough to seal a place in the 100m, 200m and 400m in Japan.

Gina Akpe-Moses, Phil Healy, Joan Healy and Ciara Neville after setting a new national record Ireland's Gina Akpe-Moses, Phil Healy, Joan Healy and Ciara Neville after setting a new national record at the European Championships in the Women's 4x100m Heats. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Before then though, there is college work and other more mundane concerns to focus on, though she still occasionally finds time to switch off and escape the pressures that come with combining studies and life as a top-level athlete.

It’s just about being with friends and obviously it’s harder when I’m here in Waterford now and my friends are back in Cork, but I’m getting to see them as often as I can. Usually, when I have a weekend off — every four weeks with training, I’ll be thinking about coming back. They’re flexible around me, because they want to fit things in as well.

“Even when I was in Cork, I lived with four other girls and they didn’t do any sport, so it was absolutely super. When I walked in the door, sport was left behind, we had our own chats. Here in Waterford now, I’m living with three others that train with me. It’s a great buzz. It’s five boys in the house, which is a struggle at times, being the only girl. But it’s a great atmosphere, everyone enjoys it and we do leave training behind. We obviously have some conversations about it when we come in, but it’s [mainly] about sitting down, putting on something on Netflix, watching films and chilling.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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