Ireland’s 400m Hurdles sensation, Thomas Barr talks about how he switches off from sport, his incredible Olympic experience, his inspirational sister, Jessie, and meeting his idol, Paul O’Connell.
I’m not a big sports fan. I watch a bit of rugby. Believe it or not, I’m not an athletics fanatic either. I follow it because I’m in it. If there are results I’m interested in, I’ll take a look but generally sports isn’t something I need to cram into my schedule on top of all the training I do.
I’m big into cars. In my spare time, I rent a garage and tinker away with cars. For my daily use I have a Skoda, but the garage is full of rear wheel drive cars that I pick up on DoneDeal for a couple of hundred quid and tune them up. Then, a few times a year, me and my friends will take the cars up to Mondello and go drifting.
My girlfriend, Kelly, is into mindfulness and meditation. She is always encouraging me to practice it because, she says, I never switch off. To be honest, working on cars is like meditation for me. It’s my “Zen”. You’re fully focused on the task. I completely lose track of time when I’m working in my garage. That must be in some way therapeutic. It will do for me, anyway.
Just getting to the 400m Hurdles Olympic Final in Rio was huge for me. While, in terms of my performance, it will go down as one of my best years, up until the Olympics I had been having one of my worst years.
There was so much pressure going into 2016.
I had a bad injury, torn cartilage in my hip. Despite the best efforts of my physio and coaches, it was taking a long time to find out what exactly was wrong and how to fix it. By April that year I had more or less accepted that, despite the fact that I’d run the qualifying time, I would miss the Olympics.
It was only coming into the middle of May, 12 weeks out from the Games that we finally cracked it. I could finally think about getting back into full training. I needed a minimalist programme that would get me into the best shape possible without aggravating the injury.
I ran over 50 seconds in the European Championships in Amsterdam in July, nowhere near my best.
”So, coming into Rio, I had zero expectations. I was just happy to have made it onto the plane.
I had nothing to lose. Everything to gain. I was walking into the Olympic Village thinking, “I’m going to soak it all up, make the most of the experience and just give it my best.”
No-one could have predicted what ended up happening.
I thrive on rounds. I had a good first run in the heats and something clicked. All that stress I’d had in the build-up was wiped away and I was just riding the wave into the semi-final. I won the semi-final, so I was on an absolute high. I was in good shape, familiar with the track, familiar with the surroundings.
After an awful year, to be lining out in the final was an achievement in itself. I just gave it everything I had.
Coming off the last hurdle, there’s a 40-metre run to the line. I think I held my breath the whole time. I gritted my teeth and tried to empty the tank on the home straight. I looked left and right. It was so close. As I crossed the finish line, there was a 10% feeling in me that I’d made it into the medals. I was staring up at the scoreboard waiting for the official result. The first three names came up and I wasn’t there but then I saw my time – sub 48 seconds. That was territory I never saw myself getting into at the start of the year. It was surreal.
There was a huge Irish contingent among the fans in the stadium. I ran down to them. They were going berserk. It was such a cool feeling.
In the end, I ran my best race and I finished fourth. To be 0.05 seconds off the medals is agonisingly close but “disappointed” is the wrong word. I’d gone beyond what I thought I was capable of. There’s huge satisfaction in that.
Down the road there might have been question marks over one or more of the athletes that finished in front of me. That’s not for me to worry about. I’ll leave that to the testers. I gave it my all, that’s all I need to focus on.
There was an incredible reaction from everyone watching at home. In sport, there are times when it’s tough and you question yourself, “Why am I doing this?” But when you have a moment like Rio and you feel like the whole country is rallying behind you, I thrive off that. It gives me such a buzz.
As you make your way through the rounds, a lot of sports psychologists will recommend that you avoid the hype, don’t look at your phone or social media or news reports from home to see the reaction. I’m the opposite. I love looking at that. I feed off that. The fact that some random person gets on twitter to send me a message saying, “best of luck, you’re doing the country proud” or whatever, the fact that I could entertain people in one lap of a track and give people enjoyment is unreal. Its class.
”I enjoy the big stage.
When I was younger my parents always said, “if the enjoyment is gone, there’s not much point doing it.” I still get a huge kick out of what I do. I’m not doing it for money or fame or anything else. I do it because when things are going right, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
If you see me coming out on track looking relaxed and waving to the crowd, I’m probably going to run a fast time. I’ll have built up a good strike pattern, I have a plan, I’m where I need to be, I know what I need to do. It’s like going into a Leaving Cert exam and you know you’ve done the work and you can have the craic with your classmates outside before you go in.
My parents were a huge influence on me. They put some much time, effort and money making sure me and my two sisters got to try different sports. Athletics was the one I stuck with because of the social aspect. It was where I made friends. While it might be just you competing on the track, behind the scenes there’s a wider team that you’re a part of and that’s what I love about it.
My sporting idol was Paul O’Connell. I always admired how he was such an aggressive, competitive player on the pitch, but off the pitch he was a gentleman. He did whatever it took to lead a team and win games and championships. All the while, he was respected, and he was respectful. I really looked up to that.
When I went to UL in 2013, I met him in the gym, and I was a little bit star struck. I’d only just started to make a name for myself in athletics circles and Paul O’Connell came up to me to use the bench and he said, “I recognise you.” I wasn’t sure if he followed athletics or was mixing me up with someone else… Then he followed it up with, “Was I in school with you?” I am more than ten years younger than him! It must have been the grey hair that threw him off.
My other sporting inspiration was my sister Jessie. She paved the way for me. She was well liked in the athletics community and had a great career.
When I was a teenager, athletics was still a hobby for me. Jessie had reached a much higher level at a much younger age. While I was working summer jobs, doing a bit of training locally and going swimming and stuff, she was away competing at big championships like European Juniors, European Youths. At the time, I didn’t pay much heed. It was never something I was jealous of or aspired to be doing. We were living on two different levels.
By age 17 or 18, I was moving on to College in UL. I moved from one social group at home to being surrounded by a whole other group at College, most of whom were well known within athletics or certainly of a high standard.
”I was of the mindset that I wasn’t really reaching the kind of levels in athletics that you need to become an elite athlete, so I more or less decided to give it up.
My parents convinced me to give it a year and see how I felt then. In my own mind I had already given up, but I always felt my parents knew me better than I knew myself, so in deference to them I gave it a shot. Later that year, I was on the starting line in the European Juniors and finished sixth. That was the turning point from being a hobby athlete to really taking on a career in the sport.
That’s also when the fun really started between me and Jessie. I had a good year in 2011. Jessie had a great year in 2012 and went to London. 2013 was my year. 2014 was Jessie’s year. It was back and forth like that. A bit of healthy one-upmanship. Never a bitter word, all good craic.
I had the advantage of Jessie going the way first. The only reason I got a sponsor was because Jessie was going really well and New Balance took her on as they were making a play in the Irish market. They asked her to recommend other athletes that they could consider for sponsorship. Jessie said, “My brother’s only young but he’s pretty good. Might be one to watch.” I got a gift of kit deal and later a contract with them. New Balance is now my biggest sponsor – all from Jessie’s progression.
We would have been going to Rio together only Jessie was plagued by injury. Unfortunately, those injuries forced her into retirement last year.
When I ran in the Olympic Final, Jessie was in the RTE studio as a panelist. She famously got very emotional after the race on live television which, if anything, added to the whole drama for people watching. I suppose it’s more nerve wracking watching than running.
Initially, with the Covid-19 cancellations and postponements, for athletes it was like getting the rug pulled from under you. But I feel like I have decent perspective on everything that’s going on. It’s obviously disappointing that competition is gone but I don’t feel bitter, or upset, or sorry for myself. This pandemic is bigger than all of us. There are people dealing with life and death situations. Postponement of a sports event doesn’t matter in that context.
I’m still training away doing as much as I can when I can. Every athlete is in the same boat and there’s a strange comfort in that.
I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last 10 years of running at the top level. I’ve learned to trust in my team and just enjoy it. Don’t stress, it’s pointless. I just need to work with my coach to be in the best shape I possibly can when the time comes to perform. Ultimately, years of work will go into preparing for around 48 seconds of my life.
There’s no reason why I can’t be up there with the best in the world. I do the work that’s in front of me and then I’ll worry about each competition as it comes, and by the time I get to the Olympics, when it comes down to that one lap of the track, I’ll try to run better than I ever have before.