Not many of us will remember exactly what we were doing on 9 August 2021, but Irish athlete Phil Healy is one person who does.
The shutters had just the night before come down on the Tokyo Olympics, but for the Cork runner there was no time to waste – her mind had already raced forward to 2024 and the dream of glory at the Paris Olympics.
Not content with being the fastest woman in Ireland, and the first Irish female athlete to compete in three track and field events at an Olympics, the Ballineen bullet had already shifted her focus to the next Big One and righting the wrongs of Tokyo.
The Bandon AC runner was part of the relay team that reached the 4x400m mixed Olympic final, and she raced individually in both the 200m and 400m events, narrowly missing out on both semi-finals by mere hundredths of a second.
And so it’s under the bright lights of the Eiffel Tour that Phil hopes to get a second shot at Olympic glory.
“It is all about thinking in Olympic cycles really because you're like OK, Tokyo is done, then you're straight on to Paris. Paris, obviously, is the big focus, even though you have the other events in between.
“You definitely come home and you reflect and because it is such a short cycle, it's like okay, are we going to Paris and I know there are athletes where that is the point in their career where they decide that's one step too far. It's time to retire and different things like that but because of Covid we have so many postponed championships that are now in the next three years, so it is a really, really busy three years. And Paris is there in the back on its own. There's so much in between that keeps you focused but yeah, for me, Paris will be the aim.”
And Phil admits that it will be then when she decides whether to hang up the runners for good.
“Whether that will be me, will I go on past Paris; Paris will be a deciding point.”
Oddly enough, when she finally does call it a day, we won’t see Phil out pounding the pavements. In fact, she doesn’t think she’ll ever run again.
“I’ll obviously do something but I would amaze myself if I started running 5ks or anything. The gym is definitely something that I really enjoy doing and bike sessions and different things so I think I'm definitely leaning more on that side.”
The Covid Olympics
There’s another reason why Phil is so hell-bent on getting to France. Because despite racing on the world’s biggest international sporting stage in front of tens of millions in Tokyo, she feels slightly robbed of an authentic Olympic experience.
“Because the Olympics wasn't that huge spectacle that it always is in terms of going to opening ceremonies and closing ceremonies and being able to see whatever events we wanted, it almost doesn't feel like we were there. And it just feels like it was another competition. It wasn't the fanfare and spectacle that it usually is.
“At the end of the day, we're always going to be Olympians but of course, I know no different because I wasn't there for 2016. I think we just accepted it and obviously any athlete across any sport would take it going ahead the way it did over waiting again.”
Luckily, Phil won’t have time to dwell on what might have been as 2022 is already shaping up to be an action-packed year with the World Indoor Championships in Serbia in March, the World Outdoor Championships in July in America, and the European Championships in Germany in August.
But will she be tackling the 200m, 400m, and relay again, or does the athlete who breaks records for breakfast have a favourite event?
“I think it definitely changes year on year because in 2020, the 400 was going really well. So that was definitely my favourite. And then in 2021, I was like, No, I don't want to do the 400. But I think going forward, you have to pick one event. Obviously getting to the Olympics in three events, including the relay, was massive. It takes so much hard work to get there in one, never mind three events. But I've done that now. I've been the first Irish woman to do that and that has made history. But going forward, I have to pick one over the other, so more than likely it probably will be the 400. I will mix it up with 200s in there as well, but not as the primary focus.”
She added: “For me, having the couple of events is almost beneficial in a way because based on the way my body works, I have to do 400 training, even if I'm doing a 100 or 200. And that's not the case for everybody. So for me, having to change the focus in there with the different events is great and it's just about building the consistency week on week. And if you do hit blips along the way, and I've had many blips along the way, it's just you learn to cope with them.”
One such blip was in 2019 when Phil slipped on a step and broke her foot.
“I was having a really good season and everything literally changed in an instant. I had this Plan A of winning medals and yet now I'm walking out of a hospital with a boot and crutches and a broken foot. So your Plan B becomes your Plan A and you just have to adapt. And I think because of the way I had to adapt back then, it helped me cope with the first Covid lockdown a lot more. So I think you learn all these lessons along the way, which help you. And at the time, you don't see it.”
It’s in the DNA
A former nurse, winning must certainly be in Phil’s blood. Her dad Jerry holds All-Ireland medals at masters’ level in the 100m and 200m, there’s a history of long-distance running on her mum Phil’s side, and her sister Joan is also a decorated sprinter. So does that mean conversations around the Healy dinner table are all about racing?
“Because I don't get home very often, when I go home, it's my weekend off always. So there is no athletics conversation in our house. Just how am I getting on and that's it. Even with competing with Joan, like we’ve been on European relay teams, we broke the national record for the relay together. It is great. And especially because she was the reason I started the sport and I'm the reason that she has stayed in the sport. And I'm there to help her when she needs it because she's had an awful lot of injury struggles, so I can just relay the information that I've learned along the way and just help her and that obviously makes a massive difference as well. But she is someone that I can always bounce things off as well, sport or not sports. So it is great. And obviously when we line up together, we have to put that sister part aside because we’re just two competitors. But I've moved away from the 100 and the 60s for now. So I’ve left that for her!”
A national sweetheart
Phil has become somewhat of a national sweetheart thanks not only to her sporting prowess, but also her humility.
In 2018, she blitzed the competition to smash the long-standing 100m Irish sprinting record set by fellow Cork woman Ailis McSweeney in 2011. Later that summer, she became the first Irish woman to break the 23-second barrier over 200m at the prestigious Cork City Sports.
And who could forget her now viral performance for UCC in the last leg of a 4x400m relay at the Irish Universities Track and Field Championships in 2016? (look it up if you haven’t seen the video!)
But despite her phenomenal success, none of the passion for her trade has waned.
“Obviously there are times where you're questioning it, like after really hard sessions. But then you look back and you know that some work has to go in and you're feeling the pain but the love for the sport is still there. And like even after the Olympics, there was no question of whether I’d keep going. You're straight back into it.”
The track ahead
Phil is hyper aware that the sporting dream could end at any moment, and she’s prepared for any eventuality. She has her Masters from Waterford IT in computers and analytics and will eventually move into that career field.
But for now, she’s happy training to be the best and isn’t afraid to admit that her mental health is as important as her physical shape in reaching her ultimate goals.
“People are recognising that the mental health side of things is so important and that yes, you're an athlete but you're also a person. I started using a sports psychologist in 2017, when I moved to Waterford, and I remember at the beginning, I just went to see my psychologist in our gym area and I was seen coming out and someone was like, ‘are you fixed now?’ and I'm like, ‘it's not about getting fixed’. It's a performance enhancer, you go to a nutritionist; performance enhancing. You go to a physio for maintenance, for keeping your body right. It’s the exact same thing. Your mind controls everything, and how you perform.”
Netflix and chill
So we know her on the track, but who is the formidable Phil Healy off the track?
“It's like Netflix, go for dinner, just unwinding yourself. We do four-week cycles and we get the Saturday, Sunday, Monday off and that’s my time to go back to Cork and just relax.
“Normally a training session is at 10am. And say on a Tuesday we have track first and then we have gym straight after and then maybe physio after that. So if I have physio, it could be four o'clock by the time I’m getting back to my house and then it’s just about recovering for the evening. It’s the same thing day after day. We train six days a week, we get Saturdays off. But for me, it's routine. It's normal, it's my job, so I know no different at this stage.
“I obviously am very lucky to be in the position that I am in, that I’m not stuck in a nine to five job or different things like that. So I think make the most of it while we have it.”