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Budapest: Kelsey-Lee Barber felt numb. This was so new she didn’t know what to think.
A reigning two-time world gold medallist, an athlete who has made a habit of wrenching unlikely victories from moments of despair, she had suddenly lost all control of the contest and could do nothing at all but let others decide her fate.
Kelsey-Lee Barber had a scare before qualifying for the javelin final at the world championships in Budapest.Credit: Reuters
By managing only just three shallow throws, Barber had failed to automatically qualify for the javelin final, so she had to wait an interminable hour for an unlikely reprieve. It was so unexpected, so inexplicable, that she found herself here in the opening round she didn’t know how to feel.
“Honestly, I do feel a little numb,” she said. “This means a lot to me and I do love it and I know athletics comes with challenges. These championships have shown the ups and downs of it already.
“I live for these occasions, today it really hurts my heart because I wasn’t able to perform when it mattered most.
“It doesn’t take away from what I have achieved in the sport, it doesn’t take away from how much I love this event. It just puts me in precarious position to try and get through to the final.”
Barber won the first of her first world championships gold medals in 2019, her Commonwealth gold in Birmingham and her Tokyo Olympic gold, all by delivering a big final throw that moved her onto the podium.
So on Wednesday morning in Budapest, it was reasonably assumed that, even if she was having a bad day, she’d produce a decent-enough throw when she needed it. Remember, this was only to qualify for the final, not to win a medal.
But on this day Barber couldn’t do it off her own arm. Her best throw was 59.66 metres. It is a rare day when Barber throws three times and her best distance doesn’t start with a six.
The qualification criteria was that anyone who threw more than 61.5m, or those who produced the 12 furthest throws, would proceed to the world championship final, which left Barber sweating on the performances of the throwers in the second pool of qualification rounds.
Kelsey-Lee Barber makes one of her three throws in the qualifying round.Credit: AP
All it would take to knock her out of the final would be for five women in that pool to throw further than her modest effort.
The odds were against her, but somehow she got through.
Her 59.66m throw – more than eight metres short of her personal best of 67.70m – was the 12th furthest of the morning. She qualified for the final in last place, saved by just seven centimetres.
“Today now is as much about an emotional recovery as a physical recovery after that. But it’s a hard reset now and a clean slate [for the final] on Friday night (Saturday morning AEST).”
Barber and her husband/coach Mike Barber now have time to recapture her best form. She was so determined to stay loose on Wednesday that she lost her instinctive feel for the javelin. In her words, it made her more “elastic-bandy”, and her mission between now and the final will be to get that feel back.
Her dream of a third successive javelin world title almost evaporated, but remains alive.
No woman has ever achieved the feat before, and if she can somehow pull off this Houdini-act to win gold, she will go down as the greatest javelin thrower the world has ever seen and one of Australia’s greatest ever athletes.
“I have believed it for a long time [that the three-peat is possible]. Today was just a little bit of shaky ground, I still believe I am a competitor and a performer when it counts, and this is my arena on Friday night.”
Kathryn Mitchell now finds herself in the javelin final at the world athletics championships, an unlikely proposition just six weeks ago.Credit: Getty
In contrast to Barber’s wait, veteran Kathryn Mitchell, the 41-year-old former Commonwealth champion needed just one throw to go through. And Mackenzie Little ripped out an impressive 63.45m throw with her third and final effort.
Australia now has all three women in the final: Little with the second-biggest throw of all qualifiers, Barber with history behind her and Mitchell, who will perform with unburdened freedom. It was just weeks ago when the veteran decided to give up on this season.
“Six weeks ago I pulled the pin on the season,” Mitchell said.
“I couldn’t get healthy, was just struggling. By the time I got well enough to train I had a three-week window to qualify.
“I had pretty much stopped thinking about the world championships, and it was like ‘[let’s] start preparing for next year’.”
But, given she already had two competitions booked in her diary, she decided to compete in them anyway. To her surprise she threw well; well enough to qualify for the worlds, so she turned up with here in Budapest with no expectations.
She then went out as the first thrower of the competition, nailed a qualifier and (figuratively) moonwalked off the track.
“The last three years has just been so f—ing hard, so it’s just been good to throw again,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
Mackenzie Little passed the automatic qualifying mark with her third and final throw.Credit: Reuters
Mackenzie Little’s day had a Barber-esque quality to it. She left it to her last throw to secure her place in the final by passing the auto-qualifying mark.
“It didn’t go all quite to plan. Those people who look at the results and see three Australians in the final will think [it was] text-book qualifying rounds for us. At least for me, that’s not how I thought it would go. But I am proud of myself that I could put things together in the final round and throw like I know like I can.
“In the final I have so much more, and I just want to have fun and throw the way I know how.
“This season there is no one on my day that I can’t beat, and I don’t think the final will be any different.”
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