Monday 20 May 2019

'I've a relaxed approach – I can focus on things at the right time'

Barr taking stunning rise in stride as he targets Euro glory

Thomas Barr broke '50' twice last summer and four times since, and has gone under 49 twice this year. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Thomas Barr broke '50' twice last summer and four times since, and has gone under 49 twice this year. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Cliona Foley

For one family from a picturesque fishing village in Waterford to produce two Irish senior track champions, in the same event and in the same year, is quite an achievement.

Although three years apart, Thomas Barr (22) and his sister Jessie (25) share a birthdate – July 24 – and a talent for running 400m hurdles.

They didn't just do that national double once, they did it three years in a row from 2011-2013. Yet, for the first half of 2011, Thomas Barr was seriously thinking of quitting.

It was his first year in college and he figured he'd give this athletics lark one more year. If it didn't work out, he wasn't too bothered.

Growing up in Dunmore East, with a mum from 'The Hook' and a dad from Passage, the Barrs were typical seaside water-babies. They had just got a boat and he was getting into wake-jumping and snowboarding and felt he might go back to the rugby too.

The Barrs live beside Gaultier GAA club so he had already dabbled in Gaelic football and hurling, played basketball in school (De La Salle), rugby with Waterford City RFC and got his formative athletics training at Brid and Alan Golden's high-class Ferrybank AC nursery.

But he definitely didn't have the garlanded profile of a typical teenage track-rat. He didn't concentrate on athletics until after the Junior Cert and, in his final year at the Irish Schools was only runner-up to Leevale's Patrick Maher.

When he went to the University of Limerick to study engineering, husband and wife Hayley and Drew Harrison, already coaching Jessie there, met a tall, bubbly kid who seemed to have a preference, and real talent, for high jump.

One-lap hurdling is notoriously difficult; a gruelling combination of speed, endurance and technique.

Fortunately Hayley, who ran 400m hurdles as an English junior international, could spot and harness his pure, raw talent.

Yet even though he started training five times a week for the first time in his life he remained totally oblivious to his potential. "I was giving 2011 one last year at athletics," he reveals. "If it didn't work out I was definitely gone."

The realisation that he could actually be really good only hit home when the college club went on their annual warm-weather training at Easter.

"Hayley was like, 'so, the Europeans are in such-and-such in July', and I was like, 'Woah! Wait! European Juniors?'

"She said, 'yeah, that's the aim for this year', and I was like, 'are you serious? Am I that close?'"

His best time in 2010 was 56.47 seconds. He was still far from the qualifying standard for Tallinn but she felt he could get under 52 and possibly make the semi-finals.

Four months later, after two sub-51.5 runs and a 50.74 in the semi-final, he finished sixth in the European Junior final. The rest is history.

The gangly water-baby is now a bona fide track star; one of Ireland's genuine medal contenders at the European Championships which start in Zurich tomorrow. Anything under 50 seconds is serious motoring, sub-49 is world-class and sub-48 is Olympic medal standard. Barr broke 50 twice last summer and four times since, and has gone under 49 twice this year.

When he ran 48.90 in Geneva in June he topped the 2014 European list. It still ranks him third fastest, and the 14th fastest in the world this year.

Jaws dropped even wider when he ran 48.94 to beat the reigning world champion Jehue Gordon of Trinidad & Tobago in Santry last month.

Gordon was en route to the Commonwealth Games where he finished second, and the way Barr chased him down in the final straight and beat him by half a second, was astonishing.

TECHNICAL

His event, made famous by Ed Moses, is dominated by black athletes but good technical coaching, especially on stride patterns, helps challenge genetic assumptions.

Barr, unusually, doesn't lift weights. The Harrisons don't believe static lifting helps hurdlers, so all his strength work is done dynamically by training in a weighted jacket.

He could get to the sixth hurdle with 13 strides last year but, tiring, would have to shorten to 14 for seven and eight, and then take the final two in 15 to get home.

In Geneva he got to the seventh in 13 and generally now takes 13 to the first six and makes all the rest in 14. That can improve further.

He has several other ace cards, not least the perfect personality for his event. Tension – which tightens your shoulders and shortens your stride – is the silent assassin of all sprinters.

Barr confesses cheerfully that he has "a relaxed approach to most things. I suppose I've a bit of an ability to focus at the right time. Five minutes beforehand I could be joking and messing, but once I'm into the blocks that's it – my head's in the game then.

"In the call-room (before athletes go onto the track) I don't get too involved in the whole slapping the legs and groanin' and gruntin'," he chuckles. "I leave them to tire themselves out!"

That breezy temperament and another uncanny ability have also come in handy in the past two years.

Behind the blinding smile and unflappable demeanour Barr has a serious underlying injury. He missed 10 weeks training last year with what was eventually diagnosed as a tear in the cartilage of his hip socket.

This 'labrum tear' could eventually need surgery but he manages it with modified training and the odd painkiller.

Despite that he still flew out of the traps, though the missed training probably cost him when he had to put three races together at European U-23s last summer and only finished eighth.

An unrelated foot problem cost him six weeks training after indoors this season but, once again, he opened brilliantly. Nothing, physically or mentally, appears to faze him, except when he's out in his beloved '04 Golf.

"It'd take a good lot now to make me angry," he says cheerfully. "Unless ... slow drivers hogging the outside lane. I'm inclined to a bit of road-rage, especially if I'm in a rush!"

Barr is a young man in a hurry now to finally make a podium and Irish athletics fans can't wait to see what he does next.

European 400m hurdle schedule

Heats: Tomorrow 10.07am

Semi-finals: Wednesday 5.05pm

Final: Friday 7.52pm

 

Five new faces to follow

Reigning world 50km champion Robert Heffernan, two-time European cross-country champion Fionnuala Britton and European indoor bronze medallist Ciaran O'Lionaird need no introduction, but Ireland's team in Zurich also includes some exciting new talent.

Mark English

(UCD AC), 800m

Age: 21

PB: 1:44.84

A product of Letterkenny AC, English finished fifth in the world junior final in 2012. He wasn't brought to the Olympics after narrowly missing the 'A' standard but two of those world junior medallists went on to make the Olympic podium. This summer, in a stacked Diamond League race, he finished second to world champion David Rudisha.

When? 800m heats, tomorrow 6.52; semis, Wednesday 9.08; final, Friday 6.55.

Sarah Lavin

(UCD), 100m Hurdles & 4x100m

Age: 20

PB: 13.23

Dubbed the 'next Derval', with a history of breaking O'Rourke's underage records and producing fast times in championships. She won European junior silver last summer and only turned 20 in May. She has still to break the big 13-second barrier, but Lavin is one to watch for the future.

When? 100m heats tomorrow 12.32; semis tomorrow 7.56; final, Wednesday 8.34.

Brian Gregan

(Clonliffe), 400m & 4x400m

Age: 24

PB: 45.53

Following David Gillick's stellar path is not easy and the tall Tallaght native has still to break the 45-second barrier. He won silver at European U-23s in 2011 and was fifth at the World University Games last year. He has changed coaches, slimmed down and spent time training in America this season.

When? 400m heats, tomorrow 11.50; semis, Wednesday 5.45; final, Friday 5.50.

Amy Foster

(City of Lisburn) 100m &4x100m

Age: 25

PB: 11.40

Lisburn's pocket-rocket made the big leap this year by equalling Ailis McSweeney's Irish record in Florida in May. Foster has made the finals of the last two World Student Games (fifth last year, seventh in 2011). Comes straight from the Commonwealth Games where she ran 11.54 in her semi.

When? 100m heats, tomorrow 10.40; semi-finals, Wednesday 5.20; final, Wednesday 7.25.

Paul Robinson

(St Coca's) 1500m

Age: 23

PB: 3:35.22

Coached by Robert Denmead, the Kilcock man took a gap year from his politics and economics studies in DCU to prepare. He's got help also from Sonia O'Sullivan and Nic Bideau and trains with the Melbourne Track Club in Australia. He was ninth at World juniors in 2010 and fourth at the European U-23s last year.

When? 1500m heats, Friday 10.55; final Sunday, 2.05.

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