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'It's hard because it was my favourite thing to do. It was what I was good at'

Injuries forced Jessie Barr to cut short her athletics career, but the Waterford native is looking forward to the next chapter in her role as a Sports Psychologist.

BEFORE THOMAS, THERE was Jessie Barr. A prodigiously talented young athlete, widely considered one of Ireland’s brightest, as she delivered on her potential at an eye-catching rate.

A fifth-place finish over the 400 metres hurdles at the U23 European Championships, a World University Games final and then, on her senior championship debut, a European Championship final in Helsinki. Not to mention three successive national titles — in 2011, 2012 and 2013 — and a place on Ireland’s 4x400m relay team at the London Olympics.

Jessie Barr celebrates winning Jessie Barr. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

At 23, it appeared Barr’s career trajectory was heading in one direction and, with a bright future ahead, London 2012 was only the start. Not the pinnacle, or the beginning of the end. Rio 2016 came and went, and with it bitter disappointment, but the Waterford native maintained hope. 

A nascent and promising athletics career had been interrupted by a series of debilitating injuries, yet Barr persevered. She came back time and time again, finding the mental strength to pick herself back up off the canvas when dealt another cruel setback. Until enough was enough. 

Earlier this week, Barr announced what many thought had already been announced. She was hanging up her spikes after three injury-plagued years of frustration, of tears, of hope, of deflation, of hard-work, of agony. Whatever about the physical toll, the mental strain had simply become too much. 

So, without too much fuss, Barr confirmed that was that. She had made the decision, and come to terms with it, last Christmas but only started telling those closest to her in the months after, and only made it public on Monday.

“It was a transition two years in the making, it’s not like this is a surprise,” she says. “Most people thought I had retired already. It was a really hard decision because since I was 12, it was my favourite thing to do. It was what I was really good at, for a while it was my job. 

“I was toying with the idea [of retiring] all of last year. My head was fried from it. I went down to visit my friends at the Cork Jazz Festival, which I had missed every year for racing, but I was standing there with a pint in my hand at 4 in the afternoon on a Saturday and going ‘actually, this isn’t so bad, I think I can do this’.

“It was that realisation that life outside of athletics won’t be so bad.”

But, as straightforward as the decision had become, the transition has been tough for Barr. Sitting upstairs in Morton Stadium, looking out over the track she enjoyed so many good days on, the 29-year-old recalls the last time she raced.

“It was 2016. I ran a race at the Belfast international, it was my comeback from two years of injury,” Barr explains.

I was really excited, I ran 58.08, I still remember it. I was thinking, that’s my first race out of the way, I’m only going to get faster and would be on that plane to Rio.

“I had no doubts, I was going to be in Rio but I ended up in a car crash the following week. It was completely my own fault, went into the back of someone, and ended up in a boot. Even then, I was thinking I was going to be fine. I ran in Geneva a month later and I was way off. I ran like a donkey and that turned out to be my last competitive race.”

Jessie Barr Barr in action at London 2012. Source: Photosport/Anthony Au-Yeu/INPHO

The flame began to flicker and that thread of optimism eventually snapped. Barr no longer enjoyed the everyday training, as her motivation levels drained and she fell out of love with the sport.

“Once I didn’t make Rio, I just stopped training. I would get back for three weeks and then have another setback. As much as I love athletics, the last few years being injured have ruined it for me. I stopped loving it and Mum and Dad always said when I started athletics, if you stop loving it, stop doing it. And I did.

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“And as expected as it was, it has been a hard transition. I’ve even flip-flopped in the months since Christmas when I decided to start telling people. I made my decision a month before I told anyone because I wanted it to be right for me. I know the work I’d need to put in to get back there and I’m just not willing to do it. I could use the excuse of time, but there’s always time. I don’t have it in me anymore. I don’t have the motivation.”

There was also the realisation that life simply moves on, and Barr could no longer put hers on hold while her athletics career stalled. After completing a psychology degree in University of Limerick, a Masters in Sports Performance, and then taking on a PhD on the stigma of mental health in sport, she always had one eye on the next chapter.

In the summer of 2017, an internship opportunity came up for a Sports Psychologist with the Institute of Irish Sport and, injured at the time, Barr decided she had to start looking to the future. 

“I think circumstances in life forced my hand a bit. Once I started working in the Institute, it was going to come to a stage when I’d have to pick between being an athlete and psychologist. I didn’t want to keep holding onto athletics. I was battering a dead donkey at this stage, and putting my future career on hold.

“I had to think did I want to keep running, probably at a lower level than before, or go after this career and let it take off? Unless I was going to Tokyo, I didn’t want to be back training for anything else. I didn’t want to train for nationals and maybe win a medal, because I’ve done that.”

After finding a new career path, Barr conducted workshops with the Munster academy and she then progressed to a traineeship with the Institute, all the while she tried, and failed, to shake off her injuries. 

Launch of Irish Life Health Festival of Running Barr was speaking at the launch of the Irish Life Health Festival of Running. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Last week, the now former hurdler travelled to Minsk with the Irish team for the European Games, which got underway on Friday, in her role as a Sports Psychologist, having been employed by the Institute on a two-day-a-week contract until 2021. 

“I have that understanding of being an athlete,” she adds. “When I sit down with an athlete and they hear I have a PhD, they don’t care but when they hear I’ve gone to an Olympics, it’s ‘oh she knows what she’s talking about.’

“No, I know what I’m talking about because of the books, but I can apply it to the real world with my experiences. My athletics background has given me a foot in the door, I know that.

Athletes have responded well. I got in with the right people, and a lot of things happened at the right time for me. If I had have been competing in 2017, I probably wouldn’t have gone for that internship and wouldn’t have this job.

Barr says she talks with older brother Thomas regularly but wouldn’t work with him in an official capacity as ‘they are too close’, but she makes no secret of her desire to go to Tokyo 2020. Just on the other side of the fence.

“I don’t think he’d work with me,” she laughs. “We chat about things and he listens to me to a point, but I don’t know what he takes on.

“I definitely have so much more appreciation for the staff who supported me when I was competing now too. I’m in that role now but very much excited for the challenge ahead.”

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Ryan Bailey

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