Monday 26 August 2019

'I was watching girls I had beaten all summer qualifying into the semi-finall' - Irish athlete Jessie Barr on dashed Olympic dreams

Despite a succession of injuries which crushed her confidence, Irish athlete Jessie Barr has found her motivation again

Jessie Barr in action. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jessie Barr in action. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jessie Barr is studying for her PHD in Sports Psychology in UL. Photograph Liam Burke Press 22

Meadhbh McGrath

Back in 2011, Jessie Barr was one of Ireland's brightest Olympic prospects. She had been focusing on long hurdles since the age of 16, and at 22, she was enjoying a breakout year.

"Everything just clicked into place. Training was going really, really well, I was getting stronger every time and I was injury-free," she recalls.

Jessie, from Dunmore East, Co Waterford, was kept busy all summer, breaking the Irish under-23 record at the European Championships before jetting to China for the World University Games and heading straight from the semi-final to the World Championships in Korea.

"I joined the likes of David Gillick, Joanne Cuddihy, Derval O'Rourke - all my heroes in sport. It was such a huge step, and it was an amazing opportunity for me, because I was the youngest on the team by a few years. I had never seen the London Olympics as realistic, but I came back a different athlete and decided with my coach that 2012 (Olympics) was on the agenda now, I was in touching distance of it at that stage," she explains.

Jessie Barr is studying for her PHD in Sports Psychology in UL. Photograph Liam Burke Press 22
Jessie Barr is studying for her PHD in Sports Psychology in UL. Photograph Liam Burke Press 22

Jessie had just completed her undergraduate degree at University of Limerick, and had planned to continue onto a Masters in sports psychology, but opted instead to take a year out to train.

"There was a lot more pressure but it was really exciting to think I was preparing for the Olympics," she says.

Unfortunately, she ended up missing six weeks of training after encountering problems with her knees, and didn't qualify for the long hurdle.

"I was in really good shape, I was feeling really good, but there was a lot riding on the race and I just ran a terrible race. I ended up placing last and all that realisation hit me," says Jessie. "I remember crossing the line and just being devastated, I was bawling crying. I did get the opportunity to go (to the Olympics) on the relay, which was amazing and I was really excited to be there, but I kind of always felt that I got in through the back door, I didn't get in 100pc on my own merit, I was given a second chance."

She adds: "I remember sitting in the stands for the women's 400m hurdles heats, and watching girls I had beaten all summer at different championships qualifying into the semi-final, and I remember thinking that was my opportunity to be an Olympic semi-finalist robbed. I was really gutted by that."

Since the Olympics in 2012, Jessie has found herself hampered by injuries. She went to Britain to pursue her Masters and join a training group with an established hurdles coach, but in her second year suffered a stress fracture in her foot.

"That was my first major injury and I feel like that set the cycle of injuries," says Jessie, who has struggled with many lower limb injuries in her feet, Achilles tendon and calves over the past three years.

"I was just very unlucky in when they happened, because it was right before competition season. It was kind of devastating to think all my hard work was eliminated. An Achilles tendon injury is very slow to heal, so once that happened in April, I knew my season was over."

Jessie, now 28, is half way through studying for a PhD in sports psychology, and also lectures part-time at the University of Limerick. Her focus is on mental health in elite athletes, particularly how they are affected by injury.

"Your identity gets completely tied up with your sport, and when you're injured, or if you're forced into retirement because of an injury, you've lost a huge part of your identity. Even though I'm studying for a PhD, most of the time I'm introduced as an athlete first and a PhD student second. If you can't do that (sport) anymore, you get to that stage of who am I and what am I?" she says.

"At first, it didn't bother me too much, I was like, 'I'm going to get back stronger', but every time an injury comes, it chips away at your motivation. I got to a stage where I was thinking there are only so many times I can pick myself back up again.

"There's a fear and anxiety around re-injury, it's something I study and I know it affected me a lot. I could be coming back from my fifth calf strain and when I'm running, all my thoughts are on my calves: do they feel a bit tight? Is it going to happen again? You're nearly scared to go 100pc in a sprint in case it happens. You kind of lose that trust in your body, and it takes a long time to build that back up."

Despite her injuries, Jessie still had the 2016 Olympics in her sights. Her younger brother Thomas is also a runner, and the two would often talk about getting to Rio together.

"After London, I always had Rio as that target, that was my motivation that kept me going all the time, even if it wasn't the healthiest because I was pushing to play catch-up on the training I'd missed, which is always a bad idea," she says.

Although she didn't end up qualifying, Jessie went along to Rio with her family to support her brother, who finished fourth in the final of the 400m hurdles.

"I'll be honest, I found it harder (with Thomas there)," she admits. "Whenever we were talking about Rio, it was always 'when we are there'. Right up until June we were still saying 'we', but I think we both knew it wasn't going to happen. He was there and my mum and dad went to watch, it really hit me then that I really haven't made it. It was tough.

"I was never jealous of him. I was really wary to talk to anyone about it at the time because I'd hate for people to think 'she's just jealous'. There was an element of envy, where I wanted that for me, but I didn't ever not want that for him. I was so proud for him, I just wanted it for me as well. I felt a bit bad that he was getting to do all these things that I'd worked so hard to do but my body had just let me down," she says.

"It's different if it was a friend or a training partner, but it's hard when it's so close to home. It was always going to be the two of us, so my parents had to find a balance of 'we're so happy for Thomas' and 'poor Jessie'. I always felt it was poor Jessie, and I hated that that was the way it was. I'd have people saying 'oh you're Thomas Barr's sister; do you run as well?' and I'd be saying 'yes I do run as well, I just never get to run at championships, I do all the hard work in the background!'" she recalls with a rueful laugh.

When she got back from Rio, Jessie found her motivation had disappeared, and began to dread her training sessions.

"After about two weeks, I was miserable. I thought, 'this isn't for me'. I didn't want to be there, I was in a bad mood at training, it was becoming such an effort. It had become all about qualifying for championships, and I had kind of lost the love of the sport," she explains.

"It became easier to say 'well I have that deadline next week, I'll skip training today', and then I realised I'd missed three weeks of training. I decided I needed to take a break, whether it's a retirement or not, I don't know, but at that stage I needed to get away from it and see if I wanted to do this any more."

At first, Jessie found it easy to adjust to life without training, busying herself with deadlines and keeping her mind off the track. But by Christmas, her schedule had quietened down and she started to miss working towards a goal.

"I missed having something to work towards. I decided I wasn't ready to quit yet, I just needed that break and needed to find my motivation again. I've been unlucky, and now I'm trying to get back to the enjoyment," she says.

Jessie has returned to training slowly, and says she is "acutely aware" of any twinges during a session. With 10 years of high intensity training under her belt, she's cautious about listening to her body and heeding any potential warnings that she's pushing herself too far.

But she hasn't completely ruled out another chance at the Olympics, and says she would be open to trying out for Tokyo 2020.

"I'd like to think the best is not fully behind me, that I can get back close to that. My biggest issue is just getting consistent training. I'd love to think I could progress back to my best in 2012, but I recognise that I am that bit older and life catches up with you sometimes, training is sometimes three or four things down the list of priorities in the day," she acknowledges.

"But I don't want to walk away from the track having not given it my all and feeling like injuries had forced me out. I'd love to do a couple more races, just to remember what that's like."

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