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World of Sport

15th Aug 2019

‘She paved the way for me, she was the athlete’ – Thomas on Jessie Barr

Jack O'Toole

‘We’d been doing athletics since I was 11 and he was 8 but growing up the Olympics was never something we had talked about,’ – Jessie Barr.

Thomas and Jessie Barr were regular siblings growing up in Dunmore East, county Waterford, but regular siblings don’t always go on to represent their country at the Olympic Games.

The Barr’s aren’t regular siblings in that regard but spend some time talking to them and they’re about as down to earth as the soil itself.

Jessie was first to make the trip to the Games, representing Ireland in the 4x400m relays in London 2012, before Thomas followed thereafter breaking the Irish record for the 400m hurdles at the 2016 Olympics in Rio with a final time of 47.97 seconds.

They have both enjoyed successful athletic careers, with Jessie the second fastest Irish woman ever over 400m hurdles, but the first to break down the barriers in the Barr household.

“She paved the way for me really,” said Thomas at the launch of indeed’s #TalentUnleashed campaign to mark the countdown until the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“We always had a rivalry. A healthy sibling rivalry but she was always the athlete in the house really until I started to come up through the ranks.

“Then there was almost like a switch then where I started to do well and where she started to pick up injuries.

“She had gone to the London Olympics and I was working towards Rio but she had been plagued with calf and achilles problems.

“She had been trying to battle for years but this year called it a day and she hasn’t strayed far going straight into the sports psych and she’s been away with Ireland on a couple of team trips.

“It took her a while to make the decision but she made it when she was ready to leave the sport. She’s a massive influence for me because when I look at her, my own sister, my own flesh and blood, she had gone to an Olympics, she had gone to a European Games, so surely I could do it if I did any way well. She normalised it for me.”

When the Olympic games becomes a sibling standard it’s needless to say that the bar is set pretty high.

But Jessie had always been the one leading the way with Thomas following in behind. She was the one that had been making the junior athletics teams. She did the high jump and then he did the high jump.

She did hurdles and so he did the hurdles. She won a national title and then in his next race he won a national title. As far as Jessie was concerned her kid brother was copying her at every turn.

“It was a constant,” she laughs.

“That was always a joke so I actually feel bad now that he’s being really nice in saying how I paved the way because I was like ‘you just copied me. Give me my own thing!’

“Your siblings; you’re always going to be looking at what the other is doing. We were so similar in terms of everything we did. We trained together but because when we were younger I was the one doing better earlier.

“I didn’t look at Thomas because he wasn’t getting on teams. Then three years later he was getting on to the teams that I did but I was more looking at what I was doing.

“Our rivalry really came to a head when I wasn’t improving and getting injured and he was suddenly getting everything. It wasn’t envy, I was never jealous of him, I always wanted the best for him, but I wanted it for me too.”

The back half of Jessie’s athletics career was consistently plagued by injury. She suffered stress fractures, calf tears and achilles tendon injuries.

She describes the experience of injury as awful and terrible but looks at certain stints on the sidelines as experiences she could have controlled.

She thinks at times she may have rushed back too soon. That there were times where she may have pushed too hard during rehabilitation. That she may have moved abroad when it wasn’t the right decision to make.

It was a hugely frustrating period for her, and one of the most difficult stretches of her career, and the beginning of her decline also happened to coincide with Thomas’ ascent into his prime and the national spotlight.

Earlier in our interview Jessie admits that she felt bad that she jokingly slagged Tom off for copying her as a child after he said such nice things about her paving the way for him in athletics, but upon reflection, she admits that she really appreciated how he handled his rise during one of the toughest periods of her career.

“We were always very supportive of each other because I think as we grew older we realised how much work went into what we did.

“It’s not like we slagged each other off for not qualifying. It wans’t like ‘I got the gold and you got the silver ha ha ha’. We knew how hard it was. He was always very conscious of me in the years where he had success – like when he won the world students and went to Rio – they were two of my biggest injury years.

“I had to miss out on those two seasons and that was tough. He was always very conscious of it and I didn’t realise until our mum would say to me he was asking how you were getting on.

“He wouldn’t really say much to me but he was always very mindful of how he talked about things at home knowing that I was upset.

“Even these messages that are coming through you to me about paving the way… he’d never say that to me. He might put it in a text but he wouldn’t say it because I think it’s like as a boy saying that to your sister is like ‘ohh god!’

“It’s easier to say it through someone but I appreciated it!”

Jessie has now left her athletics career behind her to pursue a career in sports psychology where she first served an internship at the Institute of Sport in Abbottstown followed by a spell at the high performance HQ where she is now contracted until 2021.

Meanwhile Thomas recently withdrew from the Irish Life Health National Athletics Championships with, ironically, a calf injury, but he should be okay for the World Championships later this year.

He admires Jessie for all that she’s done for him but still looks at her very much as his older sister and not the rapidly developing sports psychologist.

“She never really delved too deeply into the sports psychologist role with me, it was more just advice, but then she may have just been dropping it in subtly without me even realising it,” Thomas notes.

The lines between sibling advice and professional advice may have been blurred a bit since Jessie’s transition into a new career but it’s clear that the love for each other is still very much there.

Watching The Young Offenders recently there’s a line that sticks out about idolisation. Mairéad MacSweeney says to her son Conor in relation to his friend Jock: ‘If you’re going to mindlessly mimic someone, would you not pick someone with half a brain’.

If you’re going to mimic someone, you could do much worse than pick a future Olympian.

Olympic hurdler and Indeed ambassador Thomas Barr launches #TalentUnleashed to celebrate the countdown until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Over the next 12 months, proud Team Ireland partner Indeed will champion Irish athletes as they unleash their talents in hope of qualifying for the Games.