Wednesday 18 October 2017

‘I know I belong with the best’ – Thomas Barr on competing at the top and dealing with mounting expectations

Thomas Barr makes his way to the stage to collect his Athlete of the Year award at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Thomas Barr makes his way to the stage to collect his Athlete of the Year award at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards 2016 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Santry, Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

August 18, 2016, the day that changed Thomas Barr's athletics career. Cuban hurdler Javier Culson had just false started in the 400m hurdles final at the 2016 Rio Olympics and eight finalists quickly became seven.

Barr used to be intimidated by the likes of Culson, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics and a two-time silver medalist at the IAAF World Championships.

But a brief moment of restlessness cost Culson his shot at a second consecutive Olympic podium finish, and just like that, four years of hard, intense training was over with nothing to show for it bar the lingering question of what could have been. The cruelty of sport amplified on the biggest stage.

But for 25-year-old Waterford hurdler Thomas Barr, that same stage was used to produce the performance of his career, as the Dunmore East native ran an Irish record of 47.97 seconds to finish in fourth place, just 0.05 seconds behind Turkish bronze medalist Yasmani Copello.

Thomas Barr of Ireland acknowledges the crowd after finishing in 4th place with a new Irish record of 47.97 during the Men's 400m hurdles final in the Olympic Stadium, Maracanã. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Thomas Barr of Ireland acknowledges the crowd after finishing in 4th place with a new Irish record of 47.97 during the Men's 400m hurdles final in the Olympic Stadium, Maracanã. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

With a sub-48 second run in an Olympic final, a star was born, or created, as Barr likes to point out, with Barr joining silver medalists Annalise Murphy, and Paul and Gary O'Donovan, as the big Irish winners from the 31st Olympiads.

Irish Life Health and Affidea would come on board as sponsors, selfie requests would begin to multiply, members of the public would stop him on the street to congratulate him by day, while by night, television personalities like Ryan Tubirdy would approach him to appear on the Late Late show, the final hurdle on the path to overnight Irish stardom.

It's been a whirlwind year for Barr and he's the first to tell you about it, and how its changed what's expected of him heading into next week's IAAF World Championships in London.

"Firstly, I have strong expectations of myself," said Barr.

"I know, and my coaches know, where I am on the track and where I should be running, and we'll base our own expectations from that, but then as well as that people won't see what's going on behind the scenes.

"People will see me as the guy with the fourth placed finish at the Olympics, so they expect me to be at the level again, and that's the media and the public and anyone that is looking on, but that's also where I want to be.

"I can't let that pressure get to me, I can use it as motivation, but I can't let it get into my head in a negative way."

Blocking out expectation and pressure is a battle that many high profile athletes have to consistently endure throughout their careers, but it's a challenge that is made inherently easier when your own personal goals align with what others expect of you.

"My first year in the Diamond League, competing on the world stage in 2015, that's when I started to think 'oh god, do I belong here?" recalls Barr.

"I justified to myself that I did, but when you get into an Olympic final, and finish with a distinction in fourth place, I kind of thought this is where I belong and this is where I want to be.

"It was in my head that even when I got to the Olympics that I was good enough to be there, so I don't need to be afraid of these guys because there at the same level that I am.

"For me, it's about getting into that mentally relaxed state where it's just another 400m hurdles race. At the Olympic Games it was a big occasion but I didn't let it get to me and that really worked for me."

Team Ireland's Thomas Barr in Dublin airport for the athletics squad departure for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Team Ireland's Thomas Barr in Dublin airport for the athletics squad departure for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Minimising external pressure and running with a clear mind is paramount to Barr's success as a hurdler.

He feels that his performances in Rio were a direct result of entering bonus territory, a frame of mind where he could do no wrong, driven by the fact that he had spent the majority of the 2016 season sidelined with a debilitating hip injury.

"My blessing in disguise was that I was injured for much of the year," added Barr.

"Because of that there was no pressure on me to perform to the level that I actually did. For me to get there [the Olympics], given how I was injury-wise the whole year, was a feat in itself.

"When I was blitzing it through the heats and the semi-finals, it was all bonus territory, so I was enjoying the moment and enjoying the whole experience.

"I wanted to enjoy it because I didn't want to come home saying 'I had a bad Olympics and I didn't enjoy it'. I wanted to be in a frame of mind where I enjoyed it and I wanted to get back and wanted to be hungry to go back.

"I think I did that, and it's why I think I was so relaxed, it was all bonus territory. This year is going to be a challenge because I will be going into the championships a marked man.

"I have somewhat of an expectation to live up to but I'm hoping now that I can be confident in my own ability to produce big performances like that, I just have to go out and do it rather than worry about the occasion or the pressure."

Although the occasion is not as big the Olympics, the pressure arguably is, especially given his performances last summer.

There may be more expected of him heading into London this week, but ultimately, it's still about the enjoyment of racing for Barr, something professionalism hasn't quite taken from him yet.

"I love this time of the season because it's a rush. To get out there and compete and cross that line full of energy, well maybe not full of energy when I'm panting and puffing at the finish line, but having maybe run the race of your life, that is 100% part of the reason why I enjoy this part of the season.

"We put in so much hard work in the winter it's nice to go out and reap the rewards and push ourselves on the biggest stage and show people what we can do."

Barr has shown what he can do and is determined to prove that he can do it again, an expectation that he has of himself and a challenge that he relishes.

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