In what has been a testing time for athletes the world over, one man's focus has not wavered. Thomas Barr has his eyes firmly on Tokyo this summer and with the experience of an Olympics in Rio De Janeiro under his belt, one can understand the hunger he possesses. Especially with having to wait an extra year. Olympic athletes are not created overnight however, and we were interested in finding out more about the Waterford native's journey. This week we went ClubSpotting with Thomas Barr to Ferrybank Athletics Club.
1. What are your earliest memories of Ferrybank Athletic Club?
I have quite a few but I’ll try to keep this short! Some of my earliest memories of going training are putting my spikes on in the back of the car on the way to training, playing a game of tag on the track before we were sent on a lap to warm up (on which we usually cut the corners as a shortcut), meanwhile Bríd our coach would blow the whistle to get us off the grass and back on the track! I can also remember going to compete against a number of other clubs from the South-East at the Clover centre in Ferrybank at their open games every year. They had lines painted on the grass pitch, a long jump pit dug along one of the ditches, and a throwing ring in the bottom field. It was just the rawest form of athletics with nothing fancy but it was class. Our family along with the Cunninghams, who were family friends also from Dunmore East, would set up camp on the grass and there would be no shortage of sandwiches and jellies. However, it wasn’t so class when it rained, it turned into a mud pit and I was a little wuss when it came to bad weather. I can remember getting ready to run in a relay race, and it was milling down, windy and intermittently showering down hailstones.. Ferrybank had a number of relay teams, I wasn’t on the fastest team, and I did not want to run. My parents convinced me to do it so as not to let the team down. I bargained with them and said I would do it if I could wear my anorak rather than stripping down to my singlet in the miserable weather. My parents were extremely amused and perhaps slightly embarrassed at me trying to sprint in my oversized blue anorak!
2. Who influenced you to join the club?
My parents were very encouraging towards myself and my two sisters to joining all manner of sports and activities. My dad used do athletics when he was in secondary school, so whilst I was trying out every other sport under the sun, athletics was one of them! I was doubly encouraged when my friends in primary school Rob and Ben Cunningham were joining too. That’s a good 20 years ago now!
3. Who were your sporting idols when you were growing up?
When I was growing up I never had a particular sporting idol in athletics. As a young, budding athlete, I was hugely inspired watching any athlete in green, shouting at the television for the Olympics, World Champs or Europeans. I never thought I could make it to that level, but it did give me motivation to get out training and enjoy it!
I played rugby believe it or not, for a number of years with Waterford City Rugby club and so I always looked up to Paul o Connell on the pitch. He always seemed like such a humble gentleman in interviews but such an aggressive yet respected and respectful player on the pitch.
I also did not know it at the time, as I just saw her as my sister but Jessie was a big influence on me as I grew within international athletic circles. Jessie was a very high calibre athlete before I even thought about taking athletics seriously! She had seen it all, experienced it all and done it all before me so it became so normal and accessible for me. She was a very respected and humble athlete also and I really looked up to that. It made it very easy for me to learn the ropes with her as a guide even though I didn’t know it at the time. All I had to do was copy her!
4. What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?
My proudest moment to date is an obvious one and that is finishing 4th in the Rio Olympics. But the reason is probably not so obvious. The result was phenomenal, 4th on the biggest sporting stage, at 24 years old, in an Irish record. But it was the year that I had had leading up to that which makes me proud of that performance. 2015 was a great year for me, a breakthrough year. I had broken onto the Diamond league circuit, the highest league of athletics meets, and made it to a semi final at the world championships. It was teeing up nicely for 2016, I was tipped as a hopeful for the Olympic team and it became a very real aspiration, but my body had other plans. I wintered well, but come March when we started to ramp up the speed and intensity at training I was hit with a chronic hip problem which had bothered me for years. It was diagnosed as a torn labrum (cartilage). It usually went away after a few weeks but this lingered for nearly 11 weeks. My Olympic dream was slipping away and I felt there was nothing I could do to get out of this injury cycle. It was an extremely stressful time.
While I was able to continue to complete gym sessions and cross trainer sessions, but wasn’t able to do any running. It took a while working with my physio and specialists to figure out what the issue was until we had a breakthrough. It turned out my back muscles were tight whilst my lower ab muscles weren’t doing their job which caused my hips to be pulled out of line, causing pain at the front of my hip. It was nearly June, a mere 6 weeks from when I was back into full training. At this stage I had gone from wanting to make a mark on the Olympic stage, to just wanting to get myself on the plane, get to the Olympics, soak it up, take it all in and do what I could while gathering experience. Hayley my coach put together the bare bones of a training program to get me quick and technically proficient enough to represent the country at the biggest sporting event. We were very under pressure but it all came together in the nick of time. I can remember the last session I did in Rio, two days before my first race. I was at the warm up track in the Olympic stadium, I had brand new ‘New Balance’ spikes on, and a new pair of shades. I felt good, as good as I could considering my prep and was ready to go, I could do no more. I did one single run, flat out at race pace over 200m, with hurdles. I felt unreal and ready to race and the clock said so too. I went out into the first round, feeling good but understandably nervous at my first Olympics with less than ideal prep. I nailed the race and managed to secure a place in the Semi final the following night. I was awash with relief and knew I was in good shape to push for more. I did not know how much more it was going to be until I won my semi final in a new national record the following evening. Now I was well and truly riding the wave, full of confidence and in bonus territory. Territory I did not feel I belonged given my haphazard lead up. Going into the final I was cool as a breeze. I had done what I had set out to do, there was no pressure on me and I had nothing to lose but everything to gain. I went out and replicated my run from the semi-final but just tried to iron out a few areas I didn’t quite get right in the semi, and came home agonisingly close to the bronze medal in 4th place… I was pretty damn proud.
5. Obviously Covid-19 has stalled your Olympic preparation, how difficult was it to see it being changed to 2021 after years of preparation to be at your peak performance level?
I was in really good shape having run a PB over the 400m during the 2020 indoor season - a good marker coming into the outdoors. When Covid began to spread across the globe, we were unsure as to what was going to happen the Olympics. We were not sure whether we were trying to train for an Olympics in Summer 2020, Autumn 2020 or Summer 2021! When the decision was finally made after a lot of time in limbo, it came as a relief first of all. It was frustrating for sure, but there was a much bigger picture and that was he fact that this disease was deadly and didn’t care about a sporting event. I like to try and roll with the punches and deal with the hand I’m dealt so I didn’t dwell on it or feel sorry for myself and moved my focus to the following Summer.
6. Have you any superstitions or pre-race rituals?
I don’t have any superstitions but I do have a more performance based ritual. I like to get down to the track about an hour before I need to start my warm up on race day. If I know what my lane draw is I will then stick my headphones in and take a wander around the track in my lane, and take in all of the surroundings – things like how tight are the bends, some tracks are different, what direction and how strong is the wind, how close are the spectators/signage going to be to the track in lane 8 or lane 1 as these can be distractions. I essentially try to gather as much information beforehand to remove anything that could be a surprise so I can focus on the race itself. I will then go and chill for a bit, and find a nice spot to sit or lie down in the warm up area and then visualise my race in my lane. I’ll visualise coming out of the blocks and all the way to the finish line reiterating any coaching cues my coach has given me pre- race. It helps me get mentally prepared for the race, riled up and I then feel prepared for the race!
7. What are your hopes for 2021 and beyond?
I am hoping that all going well I would love to make it to an Olympic final and push for the medals. After that, it’s only a 3 year gap to the next Olympics so I’ll stick to the running until my body or mind tells me no more!