After the high of Rio 2016 and the bad luck of London 2017, Thomas Barr is revelling as a full-time athlete and has his sights on a medal at the European Championships this summer.
He never even imagined he would even be an Olympian, but since that unforgettable fourth-place finish, just 0.05 off bronze, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, Thomas Barr’s life has been transformed and he now finds himself as the poster boy of athletics in Ireland, that youngsters and aspiring athletes look to and idolise.
“I never really thought I would see myself in this position at all. When I was younger, athletics was something I just did for fun,” he remembers. “If anyone asked me then, was an Olympics a goal I just would have brushed it off, ‘that’s not for me, that’s for the superstars of the sport’.
“But when I actually did get to the Olympics, it hit home and I realised people do actually know me now and with that comes a bit of responsibility as a role model.
“It’s mad to think that people have that much interest in my backstory, my life, what I am doing and then trying to mimic that.
“There is a bit of pressure with that of course, and I have had to slightly adjust my thinking at times, just to make sure I am not doing anything ridiculously stupid. But saying that being seen as a ‘role-model’ I think I have slotted into it well and it has almost just become the norm now.”
Barr also finished up his studies in 2016 and lives the life of a full-time athlete now – training takes the number one priority, the reason to get up in the morning, and the paramount aspect of the day that everything else is moulded around.
Thanks to that success in Rio, which was a surprise to many, including himself, after spending most of 2016 on the sidelines, he now has sponsors and media work lined up all year round.
“It’s good that I finished when I did because outside of focusing on training, any free time on the side is full with media and corporate responsibilities,” he says. “It’s great that being an athlete is essentially my job because every decision I make throughout the day is based around training.
“Thanks to sponsors like Affidea, who I recently launched the Rock ’n’ Roll Dublin Half Marathon with, I can train full-time without the financial worry.”
The former high jumper
The Ferrybank AC athlete’s path into the spotlight wasn’t foreseen by glittering performances as a teenager and spent his younger years jumping between two events, the 400m hurdles and the high-jump.
It wasn’t until he moved to the University of Limerick in 2010 and teamed up with coaches Hayley and Drew Harrison, that things got more serious and the 400m hurdles took over.
“When I joined Haley and Drew, athletics was still really just a past-time for me. I did it competitively, but I was never on an international stage,” he recalls. “I never really thought I would be where I am now, and funnily enough the first year that I joined Hayley and Drew I was still in the mentality that I wasn’t going to become an international athlete or anything like that.
“When I moved to college that was when it was solely the 400m hurdles. It was funny actually because Drew was the jumps coach and Hayley the hurdles coach, and she took me on as her own little project completely forgetting that I also saw myself as a high jumper. I think the decision was made for me to drop that event.
“As my training progressed that first year, they saw that I could potentially be targeting the European Junior Championships. Up to then, that wasn’t a thought I entertained and I already had a lads’ holiday booked for the time the championships were meant to be on.
“Sure enough they were right, I made it onto the start-line and I had to change my holiday plans.”
The bad luck at London 2017
Fast forward the 2017 World Championships in London and all Irish hopes of a medal rested firmly on the shoulders of the 25-year-old.
Irish fans were buoyant as the date of the 400m hurdles semi-finals approached only for news to break that Barr was among the athletes to have contracted gastroenteritis.
The bug left him quarantined for two days and forced him to miss out on the opportunity to compete for a medal, something he had worked so hard towards since his breakthrough on the major global stage the year before.
Making the short trip home to London after the championships, his focus soon shifted to the European Championships that take place in Berlin this August.
After a consistent period of training, injury free and a few “fun” indoor races to break up winter training, he’s ready to hit the outdoor circuit for race practice ahead of targeting a first major medal.
First up is the Diamond League in Doha in late May and after that Barr hopes to be invited to compete in further Diamond League meets.
“I have four of the meets in my race schedule, but I won’t really know until I put a time on the board and then the invites will be sent out,” he says. “Hopefully I am racing a few because they are really good race practice. You are up against the best guys in the world which is perfect ahead of a major championship.
“If I am fully fit come the summer, there is no reason why I can’t be challenging for a medal. I know that it will be tough because some of the best 400m hurdlers in the world at the moment are European and of course at last year’s World Championships, the gold medal was won by the Norwegian young gun Karsten Warholm.
“It will be hard fought for anyone who wins a medal in the 400m hurdles in Berlin. It’s good though, because it means if I come away with something it’s well earned against top competition.”
Progression of Irish athletics
Closer to home Athletics Ireland is undergoing changes. The sport’s governing body will soon see the new CEO, Hamish Adams, taking over the reigns. Athletes, fans, and everyone connected with athletics in Ireland eagerly await with hopes of positive changes, with a professional coaching structure top of the agenda for many.
“We have dedicated physiotherapists, and strength and conditioning teams, but the coaches are essentially hobby coaches that they do for the love of the sport,” says Barr. “They enjoy coaching, bringing on athletes and helping to develop them.
“But it is all 100% off their own back and if we didn’t have them we wouldn’t really have an athletics coaching structure at all in Ireland.
“I think there was a sprints coordinator advertised recently and we have an endurance coach full-time with Athletics Ireland so that is a step in the right direction.
“But we do need to look at supporting the wider coaches financially for the amount of time that is put in. Whether it’s over the summer when competitions are on and they have to take time away from their work. Anyone will tell you the coach is the backbone to an athletes success and to not support that is so risky.”
“Everyone wants to see the changes made, it’s just making sure its done in the right manner that it is actually going to work for Ireland.”
These hopes and changes are something all connected with the sport in Ireland want to see, and while everyone dreams of this, the question will always remain where will the money come from to fund it.
Unlike in Britain, there is no lottery funding to support athletics, and the commercial arm of the organisation that taps into the mass-participation end of running is nowhere that of their counterparts across the sea. But with a new CEO, hopefully, there will be fresh ideas to help develop a strong commercial strategy to raise much-needed funds to bring about change.
And if Barr was in charge, what would be top of his agenda?
“If I was at the head of Athletics Ireland, I would have a massive office anyway and big screen TV,” he jokes firstly, before raising a very good second point. “I think the top of the list for me would be to expose as many athletes as possible to international competition.
“European Athletics and IAAF will set a standard for their competitions but then Athletics Ireland will normally set there own which is usually more difficult to achieve. I think I would take the approach to send as many as you can and get them onto that international stage.
“I know after getting to those European Juniors that I previously mentioned, that drove me on and gave me the hunger to want to get back on that stage once again.
“That is what a lot of athletes work towards for years and years and if you are lucky you get to an international competition.
“It’s hard to describe how much it means. I love putting on the green vest, there is no prouder honour and it’s like going to war for your country!
“So definitely the more people that can experience that and then build on it, the better it is for the progression of athletics in Ireland.”