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'After the game we said a prayer. We believe God is the one who has given us the gift to play at that level'

Ireland hockey star Bethany Barr talks to The42 about her faith and looking forward to the Olympics.

WHEN IRELAND’S BETHANY Barr stepped up to take a penalty in their Olympic qualifier against Canada this year, she relied on the power of prayer to get the score.

beth-barr Bethany Barr in action for Ireland earlier this year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

In her mind, she kept reciting ‘Audience of One’ to herself. It’s a phrase she also has written on her arm as a symbol of her faith in Christianity.  There was only one person she felt she was truly playing for.

Ireland were in the jaws of a tense shootout after their two-legged battle against the Canadians ended in a scoreless draw. A safe passage to their first-ever Olympics was on the line.

At the time of Barr’s attempt, Ireland goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran had just produced a save that kept them in contention, but they were still trailing 3-1 in the shootout and defeat was looking almost inevitable.

The Lurgan native had to score to keep Ireland’s qualification hopes alive. Anyone could understandably crack under that kind of pressure.

But not Barr. She had been in the exact same scenario before. During her school days at Lurgan College, she played in an Ulster Schools Cup final where her side rallied to victory from 3-1 down in a shootout.

And as she repeated the words ‘Audience of One’ in her head, she focused her energies on that higher power she was playing for.

“I just kept looking at my arm and reminding myself and bringing myself back to that,” Barr tells The42 while recalling that shootout which ended in a 4-3 win for Ireland in Donnybrook.

“Having that on my arm reminded that I’m not doing this for myself or anyone else.

I’m simply doing it for God. He’s the one who’s brought me here and he’s the one who I’m here to please.”

The shootout was decided by sudden death, with Róisín Upton converting the decisive penalty to send Ireland to Tokyo, while McFerran did enough to deny Canada in their final attempt of the shootout.

ayeisha-mcferran-makes-the-save-that-sends-them-to-the-2020-tokyo-olympics Ayeisha McFerran had a stormer for Ireland against Canada. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Canada requested a video referral over that penalty but it only managed to delay the celebrations for a few seconds as replay footage conclusively showed there was no foul on the Irish keeper’s part.

The years of anguish and missed opportunities in previous Olympic qualifiers evaporated into the night as the Ireland players rejoiced.

The scale of Ireland’s achievement was heightened by the record-breaking crowds that filed into Energia Park for the two legs. Even the biblical rain that fell in the first game couldn’t keep the numbers down. 

“I remember hearing the crowd and it actually gave you the belief that we needed,” says Barr about the Irish support.

“I never doubted that we could get the win and go all the way. It’s something that definitely helped us and helped us get over the finish line.

I remember hearing The Fields of Athenry and that’s something you hear at rugby games. It’s not something you hear everyday at a hockey game.”

Ireland’s celebrations lasted long into the night as family members and loved ones shared in their moment of triumph with them.

It was especially poignant for Barr whose twin sister Serena is also in the Ireland squad. Their family travelled down to Dublin to support them, including their 93-year-old grandad.

Both Serena and Bethany share the same religious beliefs as does their Ireland team-mate Lena Tice. Amidst the euphoria that ensued after their win over Canada, the trio took a moment to pray.

“Before the game, Serena, myself and Lena were all able to pray on the pitch together.

After the game, Serena said, ‘Let’s say a prayer of thanks.’ We do believe that God is the one who has given us the gift to play at that level.

“He’s the one who granted us the victory as well. It was something that we said, ‘Let’s take time to thank the Lord.’”

*****

Faith is a cornerstone part of the Barr household. Parents Richard and Janice have always attended their local church and brought their six children along as well.

Barr finds peace and serenity in her faith, and is certainly devout. But there was a time when she questioned her beliefs.

Her older sister Charlene was born with cystic fibrosis and was told that she would need a double-lung transplant in order to survive. She passed away at the age of 20 in 2010.

“There’s always times when you do struggle,” says Barr.

“I remember when my sister passed away, I prayed for years that Charlene would get a lung transplant and that she would be healed.

And that prayer was not answered, but at the same time, I know Charlene is in a better place.

“I know she is with God and she may not have gotten the lung transplant here on earth, but she has a new body now. While at the time I really struggled with it, I also felt God’s peace and presence with us. So, yeah there are definitely times when you do find it hard but at that time, whenever Charlene did pass away I had to really lean into God and rely and trust in him.

“I knew he was the only one that was going to get me through that difficult time, as well as family.”

Charlene was adopted by the Barr family shortly before Bethany and Serena were born, having spent the first year of her life in hospital. Her short life brought many challenges. In addition to the complications of her medical condition, she also suffered from detachment disorder which often affected her behaviour and caused her to lash out.

But even in her times of struggle, Charlene endeavored to be positive. She shielded her younger sisters from the extent of her illness, and on the evening she was told about the need for a double-lung transplant, she decided she was going to build a school in Uganda. 

gillian-pinder-nicola-daly-and-bethany-barr-celebrate-the-moment-they-qualified-for-the-2020-tokyo-olympics Barr celebrating Ireland's Olympic qualification with Gillian Pinder and Nicci Daly. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Her vision eventually led to the establishment of ‘Charlene’s Project,’ a charity organisation which aims to build schools in Uganda and improve the lives of the people there. Charlene’s commitment to the fundraising efforts resulted in her raising £70,000 within the first five months, and £120,000 was raised in total before her passing.

Charlene died in October 2010 and the work began on building the school the day she was buried before the official opening the following year.

The sense of her ambition was striking, but in those few moments after she unveiled her plan to the family, there were some mixed responses among the group. 

“I remember being so upset that night,” Barr recalls.

“Charlene’s illness is bad and she’s gonna need a lung transplant to survive. It was something I found really hard at that time.

“Whenever Charlene suggested the idea of building a school, everyone reacted differently. My Dad was like ‘this is a brilliant idea’ and he’s the optimist. And then there was a few of us, the realists who said ‘Charlene, you need to focus on your health. Is this the best idea?’

But Charlene is very stubborn and that helped her throughout her illness. Once Charlene made that decision, we all got behind her as a family.

“It was almost as if a light bulb came on. There was a complete change of mood and from then, Charlene’s Project was born. It gave Charlene a new lease of life. It gave her a purpose and a vision when she was sitting in hospital.”

Remarking on the incredible lengths Charlene went to for the project, Barr continues:

I remember her abseiling down the Europa [Hotel] in Belfast and she had a line in her arm at that stage and no-one would have known it. She just wanted to create better futures in Uganda and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. That’s something that has inspired me in every struggle I’ve faced.”

****

The Barrs first began visiting Uganda through their father Richard who was carrying out some HIV/AIDS prevention work there as a doctor. 

He initially brought his son and daughter along to the African country before the whole family was able to go together. The journey proved to be a life-changing experience for Charlene.

“She had been terminally ill in hospital and had also been adopted and she saw the reality of life in Uganda,” Barr begins.

“If she had been born in Uganda, she wouldn’t have survived her first year of life. The medical care there isn’t the same as what we receive here.

She saw a lot of orphans out there she could relate to so then whenever she was told in 2009 that she was going to need a double-lung transplant to survive, she decided that she would instead try to raise money to build a school in Uganda while she was in hospital.”

Barr received plenty of praise after she spoke about her sister and ‘Charlene’s Project’ on the Late Late Show this year. She was in studio alongside some of her Ireland team-mates the week after their incredible Olympic qualifier win over Canada. 

She explained how she was in Uganda as part of the project last year during Ireland’s silver medal expolits at the World Cup, and how 2020 will be a landmark year for both the Ireland hockey team and ‘Charlene’s Project.’

“The support after that [interview] was very good,” says Barr.

“I obviously talked about my older sister Charlene and Charlene’s Project. 2020 is a big one for us with aiming to build a secondary school out there for the 6,500 kids we support.

“The hockey team have been so supportive of that. A few churches have been in contact and some support from that, which has been brilliant and it’s just trying to continue that. 2020 is a big year for hockey but it’s also a big year for our family.”

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Bethany and Serena have been side by side throughout their hockey careers. It was their main sport of choice growing up, although their older brother David did try to encourage them towards football.

Hockey was always going to be the winner. A primary school teacher was an early influence for them, as was their older sister Natalie who played the sport too.

The twins ran on parallel lines right throughout the underage grades and even attended a college in America together on a scholarship. They went to the Liberty Flames university for four years before returning home to Ireland where their paths diverged slightly. 

Bethany undertook a masters degree in Dublin while Serena’s studies took her across the water to England. Aside from that brief time apart, the girls have always come as a pair, and are now both living in Belfast.

“That’s the first time we’ve ever played apart,” Barr explains.

“I went and visited her and watched some of her games, and she did the same for me.

“It was difficult initially, and a change. But we did enjoy Christmases and things when we were at home.

“It was weird those two years, not playing together so it’s definitely nice being back with Belfast Harlequins.

“We kind of had the whole journey together which has been really special. We really enjoyed going out to America for four years and then coming back and being able to break into the Irish squad was brilliant.”

beth-barr-and-patricia-maligaya Barr's faith means more to her than anything. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

***

With Ireland’s ticket to Tokyo now firmly in their grasp, Sean Dancer’s side are now engrossed in their Olympic preparations. 

One of the many challenges that awaits them ahead of the tournament is climate adjustment. Barr notes that the 2020 Olympics is expected to be one of the hottest on record, and Ireland are already getting ready for the temperature jump.

On the morning we speak, Barr explains how some of the Irish players have been playing in a heat chamber as part of this transition. 

“It’s like acclimatisation,” she says.

This morning they set it to 34 degrees and 60% humidity. That’ll increase over time to get us accustomed to what the temperature will be like in Tokyo.

“It’s tough but it’s good that we’re able to do it together which is nice. You come out exhausted and you definitely need to hydrate after.”

Ireland will go into the Olympics as World Cup finalists. They also have a world number eight ranking which leaves them nicely poised to compete for a medal in Tokyo next summer.

But Olympic silverware is almost immaterial for Barr. She believes she’s playing for a bigger purpose and is channelling her faith through her talents in sport.

There’s one person in her mind whenever she takes to the pitch. 

In an interview with The42 earlier this year, Lena Tice said that her faith is the most important thing in her life, “more important than Tokyo or World Cups.” 

Bethany Barr echoes that view and adds that winning and losing in sport is not what defines her. 

All she needs is her audience of one.

“Lena, Serena and I would be on the same wavelength that our faith is more important to us than anything. It helps that we have each other and help each other through that.

I think our faith is more important to us than any win or any loss because we know that success and failures do not define us.

“Whether we play well or don’t play well isn’t what gives us our worth. That keeps us.”

You can find out more information about ‘Charlene’s Project’ here.

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