JOAN Healy has come a long way since her first athletics meet in Castleisland, Co Kerry.
These days she’s the fourth fastest Irish woman ever over 60 metres and one of the top sprinters in the country, but at her first event she was the girl who turned up to the Munster juveniles in her GAA socks and shorts.
The background, first. As a kid Joan was lightning fast. Her Ballineen neighbour, current Galway United boss John Caulfield, suggested that she should join an athletics club. So she did.
‘I went into Bandon Athletic Club on a Tuesday evening, and the head coach at the time, Catherine Duggan, decided that there might be something there so she sent me off down to Castleisland for my first competition that weekend. It was a Munster juveniles,’ Joan says.
‘I had never raced before in my life, I had played GAA up until then so I turned up to Castleisland in my runners, GAA shorts and GAA socks, thinking that was the kit!
‘I made it to the final but I came dead last. I said that was never going to happen again so I stayed training. I put in a winter’s training with the group, I went to the Munsters the following year and I won it. I made it to the All-Irelands then and I won that too. It started from there.’
Joan was the trailblazer in the Healy household. Before her younger sister Phil ever hit the headlines, it was Joan whose name dominated the local newspaper. She was 15 years old when she raced at the world junior championships in Poland in 2008. The year after she won a bronze medal as part of the Ireland 4x100m relay team at the European Youth Olympics in Finland. In 2011 Joan was on the Irish team – along with Ciara Mageean, Thomas Barr and Mark English – that competed at the European Junior Athletics Championships. She was right on track.
‘I did have great success as a junior,’ she says.
‘Looking back now I went with the flow at the time and didn’t look deep enough into coaching and areas where I could improve, so maybe that’s why I was met with a lot of injuries when I tried to make the transition as an 18 year old into the senior ranks.
‘If I could go back and do it all again, and apply the knowledge that I have now, then I might have had a different transition into a senior.’
Making the move up to senior level wasn’t easy for Healy. She had the raw speed and power, as well as the steely mentality, but injuries slowed down her development.
‘When I was trying to break into the senior ranks as an 18 year old, I was starting college and I was starting to get hit with a lot of injuries. As a result, to get through all those I had to fund myself so I had to start working, and I quickly got used to juggling a job with my training,’ Joan explains.
‘When I finished college I was just starting to come back from my injuries and put myself back into competing again, but I was faced with a choice – can I afford to keep myself running as an athlete or do I need to work for a while? And I needed to work for a while.
‘That may have been different if I had a smoother transition into being a senior athlete. I probably would have gone down the route that Phil has gone down: she has stayed in college, continued her education and become a full-time athlete.’
Soon, juggling work and training became the norm for Joan. It still is, even now as the 28-year-old prepares for the European Indoor Championships in Poland this weekend when she competes in the 60 metres. By day she’s a secondary school teacher at Terence MacSwiney Community College in Knocknaheeny. Outside of that she’s one of Ireland’s fastest women who has a Personal Best of 7.31 over 60 metres, the fourth fastest time ever run by an Irish woman and just 0.04 of a second off the 7.27 record time of Amy Foster.
She has asked herself the obvious question: how much faster could I be if I just focussed on athletics?
‘I am always thinking about that, but I have gone to a stage in my career where I do need to juggle how long am I going to be in athletics and what am I going to be doing with my life after athletics,’ she explains.
‘It’s a difficult one for me to juggle at the moment because I am starting to see form that I hadn’t seen before.’
She adds: ‘It is hard, I won’t lie. You’re trying to juggle a full-time job, you’re up early in the morning, you’re dealing with teenagers all day and then you’re trying to take yourself to the track at the end, but it’s all I have been used to.’
What helps is that her school has been incredibly supportive of everything Joan does, and they’ll be cheering her on in Poland at the European Indoors this weekend. There, she’s targeting a semi-final spot that will put her amongst the top 16 in Europe. She feels that’s within her grasps and the recent signs in training have been encouraging, coming off the back of an injury-blighted winter training block. A niggle in her foot was diagnosed as Plantar fasciitis and that kept her off the track from September until mid-December. Another injury. More bad luck.
‘We decided it was better to take me off my feet and transfer all my track sessions to the watt bike,’ she explains, and this is where her sister Phil Healy steps in. Back in early 2019 Phil broke her foot in a freak accident while on a training camp in Malta. That kept her off the track, but she didn’t stop training, and she shared her learnings with Joan.
‘I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t have the help of Phil throughout the winter. She has the knowledge that she and Shane (McCormack, coach) gained when she broke her foot and transferred a lot of her sessions to the watt bike. She helped me and that kept me going over the winter.
‘It wasn’t an ideal situation, I had to keep the European Indoors in the back of my mind when I was on my own in the clubhouse on the dreaded watt bike and not knowing whether they would go ahead or not.’
The good news is the European Indoors are going ahead, and Joan will be there. She’s coming off the back of impressive signs in training, though she was expecting better than the 7.42 she ran at the recent Athletics Ireland Micro Meet in Dublin.
‘Looking back on the race there were some technical issues and some patterns that I fell into that I haven’t been doing in training. That’s probably down to first race rustiness. I’ve been on the track since and rectified those issues, so I’m hopeful of much better to come,’ Joan says – and she is confident that the good signs in training will translate to a solid performance this weekend.
‘If I get out well and produce what I have been in training for the last number of weeks, I think it’s well within my range to get to a European semi-final,’ she says.
‘When you come to championship running you are not thinking about times, times don’t matter anymore, it’s all about making it through the rounds.’
Later in the year there’s the possibility of Olympic qualification with the Irish women’s 4x100m relay team, but right now the focus is all on the European Indoors and hitting top speed at the right time.