Athletics twins with 2020 vision are on track to be big in Japan at the Olympics
As the countdown continues to the Olympic Games in Rio this summer, the sporting world is beginning to sit up and take notice of Team GB's golden gymnastics sisters, Becky and Ellie Downie.
But wind the clock forward four years and the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 could be dominated not just by another pair of poster-girl sisters, but by twins -- and twins from Chesterfield.
Alicia and Ella Barrett, who live in Newbold with mum Dyane, have already taken junior athletics by storm. For instance, Alicia is the fastest British female sprint hurdler of all time at U18, U17 and U15 levels, and last year, she broke a national U18 record that had belonged to legendary Olympic gold medallist Sally Gunnell for 31 years.
Now they are beginning to make their mark in senior competition and, last weekend, they were given their first taste of the big time at the British Championships at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium, which doubled up as the Team GB qualifiers for Rio.
However, the 18-year-old duo, who go to St Mary’s Roman Catholic High School in Chesterfield, have eyes only of 2020 vision. The year when they aim to be big in Japan.
“Time flies by,” said Alicia’s Sheffield-based coach, Tony Minichiello, who guided heptahlon ace Jessica Ennis-Hill to Olympic glory in 2012. “It’s four years since London, and in four years’ time, Alicia will be 22 and aiming at Tokyo.
“She’s good, and we felt it would be beneficial at the weekend to run at the nationals against the seniors to help her understand what she’ll be moving into.
“It’s part of our strategy to be competing at the top level with the seniors. It’s like the Manchester United class of 1992 with Giggs, Beckham and Scholes. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
“Alicia is already in the top eight domestically. Now it’s time to dip a toe in the waters with the seniors. The goal at the nationals was to make the final.”
In some ways, the pressure was off Alicia at Birmingham because she had already achieved the qualifying time required to win selection for the World Junior Championships taking place in Poland from July 19 to 24. She will line up alongside teammate Mollie Courtney in the 100m hurdles.
But she still acquitted herself extremely well, finishing third in her heat in a creditable time of 13.64 seconds and missing a place in the final by a whisker.
Ella went to Birmingham still needing to clock a personal-best (PB) time to win a place in the British team in Poland for the 400m.
“She was told to treat it like an Olympic final -- experience competing at senior level, enjoy it and try and get a PB,” said mum Dyane.
“She’s had a bit of a rocky road to get to this point after she missed the World Youth Championships in Colombia last year because of illness. But she’s a determined little cookie.“
She needed to be too because disaster struck in the 400m heats when she broke so well that she thought she’d false-started and stopped after several strides. But she hadn’t and the race went on without her, thus potentially ruining her Poland selection chances.
Philosophically, Ella said: “It wasn’t meant to be. It just wasn’t my day. I really don’t know what happened.” However, the following day, she bounced back to cover herself in glory in the 200m, clocking a season’s best time and qualifying for the final. She finished eighth, but only one-and-a-half seconds behind top GB stars such as Dina Asher-Smith, Desiree Henry and Jodie Williams.
“It was an amazing performance,” said Dyane. “But more importantly, the attitude of a champion.” What’s more, when she returned home, Ella discovered that she could still make the GB team for Poland if she runs the required time in 11th-hour races in Ireland or Belgium.
Both Ella and Alicia have also had to overcome the distraction this year of their A-levels, which they need to pass before they move on to university in the autumn. Ella is planning to study history and politics at Birmingham, while Alicia hopes to go to Sheffield for a degree in history or history and literature.
Alicia has conquered more adversity too after sustaining an injury, which forced her to miss much of her winter training, and after switching coaches, joining Minichiello following a successful spell with Chesterfield-based Danny Duke, who is still Ella’s mentor.
Their dedication, however, is fast becoming the stuff of legend, although the winning athletics mentality is clearly in their blood, which derives from their mum’s renowned Spencer family, who emigrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 1950s.
Dyane’s brothers, Donovan, Desmond, Timothy and Wilson, were all outstanding schoolboy athletes, and their cousin, Barrington Williams, represented Britain in the 100m at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Donovan’s daughter, Yasmin, was the English schools’ shot putt champion from 2007 to 2009, while her cousin, Paige Collings, was ranked in the top ten UK pole vaulters in 2010.
“When Alicia and Ella were little, we used to take them to watch Yasmin and Paige,” recalled Dyane. “They said athletics was something they would like to have a go at, and they caught the bug.
“They were both very good dancers also, but at the age of 14, it got to the point where they couldn’t do both, so they chose athletics.”
As members of Chesterfield Athletics Club, the twins have made startling progress at every age group. Alicia has dominated her event, last year finishing sixth at the World Youth event and making the final at the Commonwealth Youth Games. Ella was also a proficient 100m hurdler and long-jumper before switching to the pole vault and then returning to racing via the 200m, in which she finished fifth in the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games, and also the 400m, which she enjoys most.
As the twins’ reputation grew, they received valuable support from the Derbyshire Institute of Sport (DIS), who continue to provide expert coaching, physiotherapy and advice on strength and conditioning, nutrition and lifestyle. The DIS even backed Alicia on a warm-weather training camp earlier this year.
Somehow, Alicia and Ella have managed to shoehorn hours of training and travelling into a hectic lifestyle that also demands intense academic work. And it has inevitably put a strain on Dyana, who works full time and is a single mum after the death, when the twins were young, of their father, Peter.
However, she receives regular and reliable help from her brother Desmond, who “is amazing and is always there for us”, and also ‘Uncle Declan’, who is “the biggest family supporter”. And she’s in no mood to complain about the workload and schedule when she sits back and reflects how proud Alicia and Ella have made her.
“As a mum, I couldn’t ask for anything else in their school work or their training,” Dyane said. “They are experiencing life in a different way, and all their friends are predominantly other athletes.
“They have been down town only once. I dropped them off at 8.30 pm and told them to ring me at midnight when I would pick them up from wherever they were. But both returned home of their own accord by 10 pm.
“They are so dedicated, and everything is so meticulous. They also receive phenomenal support from their coaches and teachers.
“I have to split myself in two sometimes, but I do what I have to do to help them.
“If it all ended tomorrow, I would be delighted in terms of their commitment, dedication, focus and discipline. That’s all part of who they are, and both are lovely kids.”
Of course, Dyane doesn’t want it all to end tomorrow. Because there’s the small matter of Tokyo to come. And before then, the 2018 Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast in Australia, which is another major target for the Barrett twins.
“There is no way I wouldn’t be at Gold Coast and Tokyo,” promised Dyane. “I have no money, but I would do whatever it took.”