Saturday 21 April 2018

'We're almost at rock bottom so hopefully it'll clean up from here' - Thomas Barr hoping athletics turns a corner

Thomas Barr is impressing on the track again and has his sights set on this year’s European Championships in Berlin. Photo: Sportsfile
Thomas Barr is impressing on the track again and has his sights set on this year’s European Championships in Berlin. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

He laughs when he thinks back, the outrageous misfortune of it all. It was the biggest moment of Thomas Barr's year, the race he'd been working towards for 10 months, and there he was, sick as a dog - absent without leave.

On the night of the 400m hurdles semi-final at last year's World Championships, as the camera panned to his lane, Barr was lying in a hotel room in central London, a crumpled heap of a man.

Competing at last year’s World Championships in London before illness cruelly ended his medal hopes. Photo: Sportsfile
Competing at last year’s World Championships in London before illness cruelly ended his medal hopes. Photo: Sportsfile

He'd been quarantined for two days after contracting gastroenteritis, the bug that moved faster than anyone in London that week, and one which left Barr, well, gutted.

"I was drinking flat 7up, trying to sit up in bed to watch it on TV," he remembers. "It was annoying seeing my name flash up on the screen with an empty lane, but there was nothing I could do about it."

Twelve months after the Rio Olympics, where Barr burst into the national consciousness with almost accidental alacrity, it felt like the pendulum of luck had swung back and nailed him right between the eyes.

Having been crocked for so much of 2016, he went to Rio a paid-up member of the happy-to-be-here brigade, and it was only when his body granted him reprieve in the holding camp did he believe he could make an impact.

Of course he did much more than that, smashing his national record to win the semi-final in 48.39, then finishing fourth in the final in 47.97, just 0.05 off a medal.

But as great as that run was - Barr's time would have won bronze or silver at the previous three Olympics - it left him looking back with a slight sense of confusion: he knew what he'd accomplished but wasn't exactly sure how.

And as for when he'd do it again, that race seemed like a work of art that just came to him, one he's been trying to reproduce ever since.

Things have changed since Rio, of course. These days Barr is a full-time athlete, his studies in UL behind him, and he has the time and energy to truly live the life of a professional.

"Athletics is my full-time job, and it's ideal to be able to do it and not have to worry about funding," he says. "I'm devoting the time I need to it."

Other things change much slower, of course, with Irish athletics and the sport as a whole.

Relative

Things may have quietened down on the doping front, but perhaps that's relative to the noise of so much whistle-blowing in recent years. For Barr, things can only get better, if only because they couldn't get much worse.

"I think we're almost at rock-bottom, so hopefully it'll clean up from here," he says.

"We're in a major dip in the sport, but because it's all coming to light I think it's a positive step.

"It means the media and the public and athletes are putting pressure on anti-doping to keep on top of things, and anti-doping has had to tighten up and become stricter."

Change is on the way, too, at Athletics Ireland, which appointed a new CEO earlier this month - Hamish Adams set to take the helm from John Foley in April.

Barr hopes that one of the first items on the agenda is the dearth of professional coaching structures in Ireland.

"Pretty much all of our coaches are part-time volunteer coaches who work alongside it, whereas other systems have coaches whose job is 100pc to coach athletes.

"If we had a similar system it'd take pressure off coaches trying to split their time between family, work and athletics and they can devote more time to coaching."

At his training base in UL, Barr is guided by Hayley and Drew Harrison, and witnessing their application and that of many coaches like them, he's convinced such a structure is now a need, not a want.

"We're a little bit behind the times in that respect but I know that's being worked on in the background," he says.

"We need that professional set-up."

Having been tormented by injuries, Barr has also forced himself to become more professional this year.

At 25 he may be relatively young, but there's no shortage of scar tissue loitering in his limbs.

"My rehab and prehab schedule is getting longer and longer with each problem I had, but now I'm trying to pick things up before they turn into full-blown injuries."

Supervision

He cites an example: under his physio's supervision he'll do a regular groin squeeze test, and if the power is down it means the muscle is fatigued, more susceptible to injury, so instead of hammering on with reckless abandon - as he would before - he backs off for a few days.

"That's key - to train with minimal interruptions," he says.

"To train solidly for the full year rather than picking up an injury and missing three weeks."

Barr got through the winter without any major hitches, and the moment he reveals that he finds some nearby wood to knock on, made aware, in recent years, of how fine the line is between ferocious fitness and utter oblivion.

"Hopefully," he says, "I'll stay this way as long as possible."

In recent weeks he ran a trio of indoor races, little more than a spring clean to blow away the cobwebs of winter training, but they went better than expected.

He set an Irish best of 50.50 for the indoor 400m hurdles, then came from behind to take 400m victory at the AIT International last week in 46.94.

Afterwards Barr was surrounded by a legion of youngsters, like little minions looking up in awe as they asked for his bib, an autograph, a selfie. Barr fulfilled every request, acutely aware of the role he now inhabits for Irish athletics.

"It's cool to think kids look to me for inspiration or advice.

"I always try to portray that I was a normal teenager - I tried every sport, every event and found one that worked for me. It's very humbling and heartening to know that support is there."

It can bring unwanted attention too, of course, and in the months after Rio Barr could barely sink a pint without seeing a smartphone on selfie mode.

"I was distracted and pulled in a lot of different directions, which was great," he admits.

"I made the best of it while I could but now it's easier to just get on with things. I don't mind going under the radar."

He has five months to prepare for the European Championships in Berlin, where if he can re-produce something close to that Rio run, he will be in medal contention.

The thoughts of being back there, on the track this time instead of watching from afar, will sustain him until the summer.

"Some people shy away from racing but I thrive on it," he says.

"I live for it."

Irish Independent

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