Monday 19 February 2018

Committed to the ultimate race against the clock

Jessie and Thomas Barr aren't giving up on the Olympics, writes Aisling Crowe

When Jessie and Thomas Barr started out in athletics, the London Olympics weren't on their radar. They were just a distant event, someone else's dream. Now they are within touching distance of making the Olympics. London is their dream and it's at their fingertips, so close they can almost feel it.

The brother and sister hurdlers from Waterford, born on the same day but three years apart, began their journey in Waterford's Ferrybank Athletic Club, encouraged by their parents, when they were children. Several years and a few disciplines later, they both found themselves drawn to hurdling. Independently of each other they became 400m hurdlers.

They weren't immediately successful. Setbacks and disappointments during their teenage years led to a growing sense of frustration. The support and encouragement of their parents was vital in ensuring they never gave up on the sport.

"I think there was potential there for both of us and it just needed to be unleashed," says Jessie, the older of the two. "Both of us were disheartened and thinking, 'Why am I doing it? I'm not going anywhere', they kept saying, 'Don't give it up'. Dad was an athlete and he said, 'I definitely see potential in you. You will be good, trust me'. I'm glad we listened because we would be kicking ourselves now."

They followed a similar path to Limerick where Drew and Hayley Harrison have assembled a training group of young Irish athletes who are making ripples, their exploits drawing the spotlight towards them.

Hayley, their coach, is a former 400m hurdler and Athletics Ireland's national hurdles and sprints co-ordinator. Jessie credits Hayley's expertise as key to her development since she moved to Limerick. Last year she shaved two seconds off her personal best and made the finals of the European Junior Championships. Thomas's improvement since he joined the training group is even more staggering. He has knocked six seconds off his time, running 50 seconds last year, the fourth quickest in the world for a junior and he also got to the finals of the European Juniors. Thomas also won the national senior title in a personal best time.

"Last year I was kind of calling it a day and saying I'll give it one year," says Thomas. "I've got first year in college and I'll give it that year and see what happens. I was taking athletics seriously but not as seriously as I had before. I had a solid base from Ferrybank and the technical work I was doing up here with Hayley and Drew brought me up to the standard I'm at now. It was only really last year that I had a breakthrough at all and it got me to the European juniors."

The facilities were a big part of Thomas's decision to study mechanical engineering in Limerick as he had seen the benefits it afforded Jessie. Athletics wasn't at the forefront of Jessie's mind when it came to making college choices but her decision to study psychology at UL had a defining influence on her career.

"I didn't know about Hayley and Drew at the time but I was introduced to them in the summer when I decided that UL was where I was going to go. So I think that it was more that everything kind of fell into place and it's like it happened for a reason. UL was meant to happen even though it was never really my first choice until the last minute when I discovered the course was there."

Jessie has already achieved the 'B' standard for the games while Thomas is fractions of a second away from attaining it. However, the only athletes with the 'A' standard will earn a place on the Irish Olympic team.

Jerry Kiernan, Eamonn Coughlan and Oscar Pistorius have said that athletes who achieve the Olympic 'B' standard should be allowed to take their chance in London, especially young athletes on an upward curve. For Jessie and Thomas, London is not just about the here and now, it is about the future.

Experiencing the intense atmosphere of an Olympic Games at this developmental stage of their careers could, they believe, only benefit them and Irish athletics in the future.

"I think definitely Bs should be taken, especially younger athletes like Thomas, and maybe as far as my age because we are the ones they are looking at for Rio," Jessie explains. "I went to the World Championships last summer in Daegu as a sub for the relay team but I came back a different athlete from just being there even though I didn't run. For the first few days I was star-struck and then I realised I have every right to be here just as a much as they do.

"I think for younger people, rather than sending us to Rio having never gone to something as big as that, I think go to London, get the experience and realise it's not such a big deal; they are normal people, they are all athletes, they're just a bit faster than me. So then you go to Rio and it's normal."

They aren't taking anything for granted and are determined to run the 'A' standard and qualify for the games that way, and not pin their hopes on a last-minute change of heart. The games are looming on the horizon but they take different psychological approaches to dealing with the issue.

For Thomas, avoidance is the strategy he employs: "Going to the Olympics would be huge. I haven't thought about it too much because it's completely overwhelming. After putting all the work in and thinking it could happen, then if it doesn't you would be upset, but you have to keep working and keep trying"

The games are never far from Jessie's mind, though, sometimes they are all she can think about. Even the Olympics television ads are a teasing reminder of her dream.

"I'm the opposite. It's all I can think about. This time last year I was running 58 seconds and I was three seconds away from qualifying and I thought I might have a chance of making the Olympics in Rio. Then I ran 56 seconds and got the 'B' standard and I thought I might go to the Olympics so I said why not take this year just to train and see what I can do? So it is what this year has been based towards but I will be disappointed to say the least if I don't get it."

Jessie visualises crossing the finishing line, glancing up at the clock and seeing the time in neon lights, confirming that she's made it. Two races to get the 'A' standard for the European Championships in Helsinki at the end of June, where they hope to have three races to run the 'A' time for London.

It's a high-stakes move and the pressure is on. Jessie and Thomas Barr are chasing time, chasing dreams.

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