Phil Healy: ‘I didn’t know if I would ever get back to where I was’

The former Irish sprint record holder is now back after 18 months dogged by illness

The last thing Phil Healy needed was another reminder that something wasn’t right. Basic sprint sessions had become such a slog, her racing form so brutally inconsistent, her whole life a sort of living hell. She simply couldn’t continue like this.

So when she trailed home in fourth at last summer’s National Championships in Santry, some three seconds off her 400m best, her own ultimatum was get things sorted, or else call it quits.

That came during a period of 18 months when by Healy’s own admission she was fast losing hope of returning to the form that saw her break the Irish 100m and 200m records in 2018 in the colours of Bandon AC, then make the Olympic final in Tokyo as part of the Irish mixed 4x400m relay. It was only natural she soon found herself contemplating retirement.

“One hundred per cent, many times,” she says now. “Purely because I’d got to an Olympics, got to a World Indoor final, been to World and European Championships, broken national records, achieved so much.


“And then gone from the height of the sport, to my own standard, individually, to the lows of the sport. That’s not being weak, that quitting was the easy answer. I had no answer as to why things weren’t going the way they should be.

It’s called Hashimoto’s disease, was literally just my thyroid was being irregular. There’s a family history of that as well, then I had the positive antibodies

“I didn’t know if I would ever get back to where I was, or better. So there were plenty of tears along the way during those 18 months. But I had good people around me, and I’m in a much better place now, mentally and physically.”

She can trace the problems now back to the World Indoor Championships in March 2022, after which she got Covid-19. She’s still unsure if that triggered the thyroid condition that up to then hadn’t impacted on her athletics, then made worse by an autoimmune illness.

Then came that low point: “It was Nationals, last year, because for me, my standard, that was just an absolute disaster. I came fourth, in 54-something, and that was the deciding point, that I need to come off the train now.

“It would have been great to go to the World Championships [in Budapest], be part of the relay with the girls, but at that point I literally couldn’t think of anything worse than training for another four weeks.

“So for me that was stopping, getting that break to refresh mentally and physically, get my body back around. Because all last year I lived in hope of things actually coming back right. You go to training, there is so much expectation, will I, won’t I, hit the times. But I know the ins and outs of training and there is no fooling me if something isn’t good enough.”

Only since gradually returning to training last September has she finally turned that corner, opening her indoor season in recent weeks with encouraging performances over 200m, running 23.37 in Gent, and running 53.18 over 400m in Dublin.

“So the thyroid issue, it’s called Hashimoto’s disease, was literally just my thyroid was being irregular. There’s a family history of that as well, then I had the positive antibodies.

“I was put on medication to regulate it, and I don’t know if it was post-Covid that triggered it, if that was something that actually raised it more. And then it took a while for that to regulate and then my body probably was all over the place.

“It wasn’t until March of last year that I actually started the medication and that was nearly 10 months after it kicked off, so it’s a really good feeling to be back running fast again, seeing quick times on the clock. It’s obviously a big year ahead, and I’ve come from a rough 18 months.”

Still only 29, Healy also lost her Irish 100m record of 11.28 last summer, when Sarah Lavin lowered it to 11.27. She was quick to congratulate, Healy’s thoughts then being to get herself right.

“I think it was probably more frustrating than anything, athletes always have hard times along the way in their career. I’ve been very lucky injury-wise, breaking my foot in 2019 was probably the only major injury that I’ve had.

“I’ve made major championships every year, indoor and outdoor, for the last 10 years in a row. It’s medication for life now, which is fine too because it’s obviously something that I have to monitor. But we’ve got to the bottom of it so it’s just about managing it and regulating it and keeping my body chilled and not stressed.”

She’ll race the 200m at this weekend’s National Indoor Championships in Abbotstown, ideally the relay at next month’s World Indoors in Glasgow, then work towards regaining her place on the mixed relay team for Paris.

“I think this tested me mentally more probably than anything. It definitely was a dark place, just because I didn’t have the answers, I didn’t know if I should continue in the sport, it wasn’t bringing me any enjoyment any more.

“You give so much of your life, like I’ve been doing this properly since 2013. So that’s 10 years of sacrifice, that’s 10 years of dedication. Obviously, everybody’s going to have the tough times, but I definitely became very anxious, irritable, I just wasn’t happy.

“But I’m back now, gunning for everything again. And it definitely has made me more resilient and excited for what’s ahead.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics