Thursday 5 December 2019

Winning runs in the family

Brother and sister athletics duo Thomas and Jessie Barr have been training companions and competitors since childhood and with Rio 2016 on the horizon, they're set to become household names.

Thomas and Jessie Barr are hoping to compete in Rio 2016
Thomas and Jessie Barr are hoping to compete in Rio 2016

Joanna Kiernan

The momentum is building behind Ireland's next big athletics hopes, Thomas (22) and Jessie (25) Barr from Dunmore East, Co Waterford ahead of 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but these siblings have their feet firmly on the ground.

"We did every sport when we were growing up," says Jessie. "Mum and dad were really into sport and they wanted us to be active, so literally every weekend and week day we were doing something in sport. We didn't really discover athletics until I was 11 or 12 and Thomas was about 8. It was just another thing that we did. Thomas joined first and I was like: 'No thanks!' But then he came home two or three times raving about how much fun it was so I wanted to go and try it out then.

"We didn't really get it so much from our parents. My mum is always telling us to pretend she was an athlete, but she wasn't," laughs Jessie. "She did her fair share of sports in school, but she wasn't that interested. Our dad was an athlete in school, but once he finished, he found work and didn't keep it up."

Thomas currently holds the Irish senior record for the 400m hurdles. He is also a three-time national champion in that discipline and has represented Ireland multiple times in under-age and senior competition.

Older sister Jessie was an Olympian in 2012, competing in the 400m relay. She also made it to the final at the European Track and Field Championships in Helsinki in 2012, where she came eight in the 400m hurdles.

"For us growing up, the main thing about athletics was it was fun," says Thomas. "We still have a lot of friends who did it. The enjoyment of it feeds the motivation and now that we are actually doing well at it, that's feeding it as well because if we are achieving at what we love, it makes it that much easier to train for it. It makes all of the hard work really worthwhile.

"It's like a job that we love. Obviously athletics wouldn't be a very high-earning job, but at the end of the day it is like a job - it is a nine to five commitment and we love it, so we are lucky."

The life of a professional athlete is certainly a big commitment. Both Thomas and Jessie train six days a week with one day recovery. Yet both siblings have found time to study simultaneously - Thomas has just finished his degree in Sports Performance at the University of Limerick and is going on to do a Masters after graduating, and Jessie is currently finishing her thesis for a Masters in Sports Psychology from Bath University, and hopes to go on to do a PhD.

"The big commitment comes in when you are training twice a day, so you get up, you go training, you come home," says Jessie. "It's probably perfect that we're both students because you need to be sitting down and not doing too much - you can't tire yourself out before the next training session that evening."

However, neither sibling sees this level of commitment as a major problem.

"There is a lot of talk about sacrifice in sport, but we enjoy it," adds Jessie. "I'd consider it more of a sacrifice if we were doing something we hated."

While Jessie and Thomas are firmly focused on their athletics careers at the moment, both are also keen to make preparations for life after the track.

"It's a massive thing for sports people," says Jessie. "Our shelf life is a lot shorter. It is a career, but it is a much shorter career and a lot of athletes, when they reach a certain level, they think they have to put everything into their sport, but you can balance it.

"You don't see many athletes on the track past the age of 31... or 32 is kind of the max. So then you are starting a whole new career, so at least now if we have these degrees under our belts, we can be finished athletics and go straight to the next career. I have studied depression in elite athletes and athletes that retire without a plan. When they retire it's like: 'Well, now what?' They don't have a plan B and they don't know what to do, so they're kind of left in limbo and that's really difficult for them. At least if we're putting in the preparation and studying the whole way through our athletics career, at least then when we are finished we won't be left in that kind of grey area."

Both Thomas and Jessie enjoyed the best years of their careers to date when they were studying for their final exams.

"I had all my final projects and exams to worry about, so in a way it was actually a good distraction to have," says Thomas. "So you can strike a balance whereby you are living healthily and you are also getting training and work done. It can be done.

"When you are sitting in the library all day, even though training sessions are horrible, it was like you had to leave the library at 5pm to be at the track and it was two hours that you could take a break guilt-free from the library. You can sit down and take a break and go and watch TV, but at the back of your head you are always going 'I should be studying,' whereas when you are training you are doing something else that is productive. So I think they compliment each other really well."

With such a packed schedule, nutrition is extremely important to the Barrs. "Getting protein in before training sessions is really important," says Jessie.

"And staying hydrated during the day as well," Thomas adds. "When you're going shopping it's hard not to be throwing in biscuits and stuff like that, but we've just got into the routine that if it's not in the house you're not going to eat it.

"So it's important to make sure you're buying all of the right things to keep you going during the week, so you're buying your food for your main meals - your complex carbohydrates, so brown everything rather than white bread and pasta, and lots of veg. It's become such a regime for us now so we're really in tune with it. You need to make sure your body has enough fuel and that it is the right kind of fuel."

Athletics is often considered quite a lonely sport. However, Thomas and Jessie have become both each other's greatest support and competitors over the years.

"It helps massively that we have one another," says Thomas. "We can be very honest with each other. At training if Jessie notices something she is not going to be shy about telling me. So we can help each other in that way and because we are both at the same kind of level, there is a lot of competitiveness between us. Being honest, we are very competitive with each other. We are always trying to one-up each other," laughs Thomas. "In 2012, Jessie was at the Olympics and I had an OK year that year and I was jealous of course, and nearly feeling guilty for being jealous, but then we nearly take turns - this year I had a really great year."

"And I had those guilty feelings," laughs Jessie.

Yet, the siblings are united in their shared ambitions to represent Ireland at the Olympic Games in 2016.

"We have a common goal because we are both working towards Rio 2016, so it's a motivating factor as well, but silently we are going to be competing with each for that because we both want to be there in top form," says Thomas.

"We were kind of lumped together, but it has worked out brilliantly for us because we will always have each other," adds Jessie. "Even the first time we were both on a senior team it was great because we are both our biggest supporters. At Helsinki in 2012 I had made the final but I came last, so it was brilliant that I had made the final but coming last was pretty embarrassing and I remember after I came through all of the media things, Thomas was the first face I saw and I really needed to see a familiar face.

"I literally just held on to him and cried on his shoulder like a baby, whereas if that had been someone I didn't really know I probably would have held it in and felt worse. We know each other so well that we know how the other is feeling - we know when to say something and when not to say something."

Thomas and Jessie are brand ambassadors for Wellman/Wellwoman nutritional supplements.

Health & Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life