There are not too many days off in the life of University of Limerick student Thomas Barr. The 23-year-old from Waterford credits his success on the track by finding the right balance off of it.
Barr will be the only Irish athlete at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing at the end of this month, and the Irish record holder for the 400m hurdles has only gone from strength to strength in what has been a remarkable 2015 for the Ferrybank native.
Fresh off a gold medal win at last month’s World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea, Barr became the first Irish student since Sonia O’Sullivan in Sheffield in 1991 to win a gold medal for Ireland and he admits that the last couple of months have been pretty surreal for him and his family.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind year and I suppose it all started off with being able to train all year straight through without injury,” said Barr, who just turned 23 two weeks ago.
“Then the summer rolled around and I suppose I’ve just been riding this wave and have been going from strength to strength ever since.”
The wave has been a perfect 10 for Barr who has had a roller coaster couple of months that have seen him pick up the European Athlete of the Month award for April and a World University Games gold medal in July.
The IAAF World Championships in Beijing will be Barr’s first real taste of what top level international competition is, and while it will be the biggest competition he has faced, it will also be a nice dress rehearsal before the bright lights and big stage of next summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“At the start of the year, I suppose I said to myself that if I can get myself near a final that’d be great, but because my time has come down so much and I’ve made such good improvements on the international stage it’s not such an unrealistic expectation anymore to want to get myself into the final.
“I don’t want to count my chickens yet or jinx it or anything like that, but yeah the final is my goal and it’s where I want to be.”
Barr says he is fully focused on Beijing later this month, but the 23-year-old can’t help but feel giddy when talking about representing Ireland at the Olympics in Rio next year. Barr’s scintillating 48.78 in Korea was enough to see him secure University gold in Gwangju and if Barr can maintain form and similar times over the coming months it will see him represent Ireland at the Olympics next summer.
“It’s surreal,” said Barr. “That’s exactly what it is – surreal. I always looked at the Olympics as this faraway place and I remember even when I was a young athlete, there was a friend of mine whose dad had been to the Olympics, and it was a huge deal to me as a child.
“I viewed him as like ‘my god he’s a celebrity’ but now I suppose I’m taking it in my stride. However, because I’ve been so busy for the last couple of months I haven’t been really thinking about it, but now it’s becoming more of a reality,” he explained.
World Championships and Olympic dreams weren’t always a reality for Barr, who almost gave athletics up as a freshmen at UL. However, after his parents convinced him to stick with the sport for just one more year, Barr started to see massive improvements after finding the right balance between training and college life.
“When I was younger and I was looking up to all these Olympians, it was never a dream for me, I never aspired to get to that level,” said Barr.
“It was just a hobby. It was where I enjoyed spending time with my friends training. My parents were very encouraging of me and my two sisters to try out an array of different things until we found what we liked.
“I did rugby for a few years and tried GAA, but I always liked athletics. When I came to college I actually thought of giving athletics up because I’d been doing it for so long, since I was about 8 or 9 years old, and I was kind of getting sick of it,” he admits.
“College was a whole new start and everyone was going out drinking and I wanted to get involved in all that, but my parents said that I should give it one more year.
“So I gave it another year, I moved to a new training group and I was dedicated to athletics, but at the same time, I didn’t let it get in the way of college and I was having a good time to a certain extent,” he explains.
“Then the training just really fell into place and I ended up going to the European Junior Championships that year with Ireland, which was something I never even expected, and I ended up taking six seconds of my personal best which was astonishing,” he adds.
Barr’s story of perseverance, dedication and social pressure are is something that a lot of student athletes around the country can relate to, which makes it remarkable that the casual drifter and watersports fanatic has been able to achieve these amazing feats at just 23.
Barr’s turnaround has been sensational and if all goes according to plan over the coming months, we will all be there with him to share the next chapter of his incredible journey in Beijing and Rio.