By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Javelin world champion Kelsey-Lee Barber is shutting out the COVID-19 “noise” in the lead up to the Olympics, but the Australian hopes desperately to hear the rumble of fans when she gets set to launch in Tokyo.
As a big-stage performer, Barber said she missed the rush of crowds through the pandemic-hit 2020, and would draw energy from fans at National Stadium during the Games.
“This is going to be a big factor for the Olympics this year. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels this way,” the South Africa-born 29-year-old told Reuters in an interview. “I do use the crowd, I love the crowd and I love to perform. It’s just going to be different this year.”
Foreign fans will not be allowed at the Games this year. And authorities recently banned crowds at sporting events in Tokyo and other cities as part of a state of emergency that will last until May 11 to combat a spike in COVID-19 infections.
Organisers might decide it’s not worth the risk to have any fans at all at Olympics, which run from July 23 to Aug. 8.
“There are ways you can practise for that and to channel energy in a different way,” she said. “I might have to tap into the (energy of the) actual competition, the girls around me and the numbers, and play that game a bit more than normally, if that’s what will fire me up.”
Barber, who stayed in Australia last year because of the pandemic, has struggled to get back into the swing of things this year, throwing well below her career-best of 67.70 metres in 2019, when she was world champion.
However, in front of a proper crowd at Australia’s recent national athletics championships, she threw above 60m for the first time since 2019.
Her best of 61.09m at Sydney’s Olympic Park was second to Commonwealth Games champion Kathryn Mitchell (63.34m), but it was enough for local media to declare Barber had rediscovered her “mojo”.
“I’d love to say, like the headlines, that ‘I am back’. But I feel like I’m not quite there 100% yet,” Barber said. “I did feel more like myself on the runway than I have in the past couple of months.”
Her coach, Mike Barber, is also her husband. The Canberra-based couple are always careful about separating sport from home life, even with the Olympics looming.
“This year has been tough. When things are going great and Kelsey’s throwing well, it’s really easy to balance both,” Mike Barber told Reuters. “It’s been a different challenge this year with Kelsey struggling with her form a little bit and struggling with her confidence.
“But it’s like anything in life, you find ways to manage the emotional side of it.”
Managing the emotions for Kelsey-Lee Barber has meant staying focused on Tokyo, even as health experts call for the already-postponed Games to be put off again.
Barber would like to get to Europe to compete before the Games but concedes they may settle for training in Australia’s tropical north to prepare for Japan’s summer heat.
If at all possible, the Olympics must go on, Barber said.
“It’s something that can bring nations around the world together and that’s what we need at the moment,” she said.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Gerry Doyle)
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