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'Crazy, unbelievable, beyond my expectations' - Phil Healy's historic Olympic exploits

The Cork star’s in-depth reflection on Tokyo 2020.

JUST UNBELIEVABLE. Two words Phil Healy uses time and time again as she looks back on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The Cork star is back on home soil after all the madness of her debut Games, and has had some time to reflect on, and review the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

phil-healy Phil Healy's debut Games was a memorable one. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

She’s certainly still in race mode, fully unwinding a while away yet as her season hits its latter stages. But the “crazy, crazy experience” of Covid-impacted Tokyo 2020, and everything that came before and after, is one that will be hard to top.

26-year-old Healy made history there, becoming the female Irish athlete to compete in three athletics events at the same Olympics. She ran in the 200m and 400m, while also inspiring the 4x400m relay team to a monumental final, in which they finished eighth.

The quartet of Healy, Cillín Greene, Sophie Becker and Chris O’Donnell clocked a new national record of 3:12.18 in a sensational semi-final run, before posting 3:15.04 on the biggest stage.

“We showed everyone that we can compete on an international stage and put it up to these bigger countries,” as Greene said afterwards. Healy wholeheartedly agrees, the relay exploits clearly meaning a lot to the Ballineen Bullet.

“We had an aim of 3:14 going out there and we ran 3:12,” she smiles, amid a passionate three-minute monologue reflecting on the entire Games experience.

“That alone, shattering the national record by four seconds, but to make an Olympic final… Olympic finals in track events are just so rare in Ireland. It was just crazy, and to share that with five others as part of the team, was just unbelievable. Just to go out there and walk onto the track, knowing that it’s an Olympic final, it was just crazy. It was just a bit surreal.

“Obviously I had to turn the focus to the individual [events] – the recovery time was really, really short. It came down to the fine margins, I suppose, with the 200 and the 400. Just being five hundredths of a second off [reaching a semi-final] in the 200, and seven hundredths of a second off in the 400.

“I went to the games in PB shape so I knew that there was an awful lot more, so definitely walking off the track in the 200, I was very disappointed… obviously you have to sacrifice your individual [events] to a certain element, but it’s an Olympic final that you’re competing in.

“For me looking at it, individually, an Olympic final individually is not a realistic aim at the moment. The best hope of an Olympic final was part of the relay, but I knew that I could make an Olympic semi-final individually. It was disappointing knowing that I was so close in the 200, knowing that I could have ran an awful lot faster, but then I just moved that disappointment into the 400 and definitely blew my expectations out a bit.”

Along with her coach Shane McCormack, the decision on competing in the 400m – her last event – was not made until she was in her spikes before heading into the call room.

That made her excellent performance, in which she ran 51.98, even sweeter.

“To go out there and break the 52-second barrier was just unbelievable. It was my second fastest time over 400. Maybe if I was fresh, that could definitely have been a 51-low but it just gave me great confidence knowing that I could go out there and do that after four races.”

sophie-becker-cillin-greene-phil-healy-and-christopher-odonnell-wait-to-see-if-they-have-qualified-for-the-final Becker, Greene, Healy and O'Donnell waiting to see if they qualified for the final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Especially looking back now, it was great to have the team — five other people became Olympians, became Olympic finalists,” she added.

“It just shows as well with the relay, the depth that we have now in Ireland. Looking at our World Relays team, it was only myself and Chris [O'Donnell] that ended up in Tokyo, so it just shows how everybody stepped up, came out, earned their spot and was a part of that squad for the Olympic Games.

“It’s great. Going into the future, knowing that we have that depth there, nobody’s spot is secure and it gets everybody to up their game and push on further.”

While she may focus on her individual exploits in future, Healy has no regrets whatsoever. She’s proud of all she achieved and this history she made, nothing or no one can take that away from her.

The pride of others too, she beams, particularly that around home.

Having stayed away from Ballineen since March due to Covid-19 precautions, her homecoming was all the more special as a result. “To come back to see all the posters, the banners, the flags, everything…

“It was just unbelievable to to see everybody line the streets in Ballineen and Enniskeane and Bandon as well. Everybody was saying that it really brought the community together. And that’s great, to lift everybody back home and lift the nation.”

After the mounting expectation and pressure, it was nice to breathe a sigh of relief on her return.

“Someone sent me a message about the the posters all the way from Ballineen to Beara to support the number of Olympians that were coming from West Cork. When I saw all the posters going up, initially, if I was like, ‘Oh god’.

“Obviously Olympic finals in athletics can be a step too far, being realistic. I was like, ‘I’m not the rowers’ to a certain element, where I’m not a mega favourite or anything like that, so there definitely was that expectation.

“Once we got to the final It was like, ‘Okay, I can fit in in West Cork now!’ An Olympic finalist – and you obviously had the great success of the rowers.

“That support – there was empty stands over in Tokyo, but it was almost as if those supporters were in Tokyo because you really felt every bit of the support. Maybe it was magnified to a certain element because of the no fans in Tokyo.”

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With a few more athletics fans after her and her track and field team-mates’ exploits, Healy thankfully hasn’t felt a comedown, or those post Olympic blues.

Olympic Federation of Ireland [OFI] workshops before departure to The Land of the Rising Sun prepared athletes for balancing the highs and the lows and managing emotions, and Healy found those helpful.

lidl-girls-play-too-2-media-day Phil Healy launching ‘Girls Play Too 2: More Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

“I think because the Games were so different to other Games, I haven’t experienced it as much,” she conceded. “For me, yes it was an Olympic Games but at the same time, it was just another race, different marketing.

“Yes, there is so much hype about it, but we didn’t go to opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, different things like that. We were just there to race, go back to your apartment to go out and race again.

“Obviously coming back and seeing all the support and different things like that gives me a massive boost. I still have two or three races left. For me, it was straight back into race mode again and then I get to fully unwind after it. I definitely controlled myself in that way that it wasn’t a massive comedown when I did come back.”

So the obvious final question: what’s next? And what have you learned from the Olympic experience that you can take forward?

The answer to the latter is certainly plenty, both as an individual athlete and as a team player.

“The Olympics, obviously, is the pinnacle of every athlete’s career,” she concludes. “And that’s where you want to compete. For me competing in three events, making history there, competing in an Olympic final, that was certainly beyond my expectations.

“Obviously the potential is there to make these world semi-finals, Olympic semi finals, so that’s a massive boost for me going forward and as we look into next year, it is a very busy year where we have World Indoors, European Outdoors, and Word Outdoors.

“We’ve never had three international major championships in the one year, so it is very exciting. I’ll have the 400 indoors because there is no 200 – so we may keep the focus more on the 400, we might swap to a 200 for a certain championship and we might narrow it down to event.

“And it’s great then to have the relays qualified for World Championships and hopefully we can get an all-female one to European Championships in late August of next year.”

Bring it all on. Just unbelievable.

‘Girls Play Too 2: More Inspiring Stories of Irish Sportswomen’ is exclusively available in Lidl stores nationwide for only €12.99 until 5 of September.

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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