James Sullivan has been chatting with another of Ireland’s brightest prospects, 400 metre hurdler Jessie Barr, 5th at this year’s European Under-23 Championships.
Jessie Barr is an elite athlete from County Waterford, Ireland, who specialises in the 400 metres hurdles. At the 2011 European Under-23 Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, she finished in 5th place, recording a personal best and Irish Under-23 record of 56.62 seconds in the process. This puts her up to number 4 on the Irish all-time list for the event, behind Susan Smith (54.31), Michelle Carey (56.19) and Mary Appleby (56.51). Her younger brother Thomas is also an elite 400 metre hurdler.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. Easy question first, how did you first get involved in athletics?
Jessie: I was relatively late starting athletics, I only got into it when I was 12 and had started secondary school. I had always been involved in sport from a young age; I started gymnastics at 5, and dabbled in swimming, hockey and basketball. It was Thomas who actually started athletics first and he loved it, so a week or so later, out of curiosity, I went along to training with him. I really liked it too, which was perfect because I was starting to lose interest in gymnastics and was looking for something new to try. It also helped that some girls from school were also in the club!
James: Did you have a particular athletics idol growing up?
Jessie: Growing up I didn’t have any particular athletics idol as such, but I would say that Sonia O Sullivan was an inspiration to watch when I was younger. She is still seen as one of the most successful and most recognisable names in Irish athletics. Seeing her achieve so much on the World stage was definitely inspirational and she created a buzz around athletics despite it being such a minority sport in Ireland. If I could be half as successful as she was I’d be very happy!
James: When did you realise that the long hurdles would be your strongest event?
Jessie: After I tried most of the other events, haha! When I first started in athletics I tried a bit of everything, from the jumping events, to sprints and hurdles and I also, reluctantly, ran cross-country. For a few years I had a lot of success in the high jump so that became my main focus, but I always did the sprint hurdles on the side and took part in the running sessions as well at training. When I was around 16 the high jump started to go downhill and I was becoming really disheartened with athletics, so my parents encouraged me to try a completely different event to stop me from giving up. I was never quite fast enough for the 100m hurdles, but I had the technique, and I was OK at the speed endurance training, so trying the long hurdles just made sense. At that time they were 300m hurdles, which I wasn’t fast enough for, but when they moved to the full 400m distance, I started to run quite well. I think I realised I was actually good at them when I got the silver medal behind Kalyn Sheehan at the National Senior Championships when I was 16, and ran a time that was just outside World Junior qualification! From then on I decided to prioritise on the long hurdles!
James: The 400m Hurdles comprises a unique blend of speed, endurance and technique. Which of these do you believe to be your greatest strength?
Jessie: Out of the three I’d say endurance is probably my greatest strength. In 400 hurdles races whenever I am beaten the first thing anyone watching would say is “You just ran out of track” or “If only you had another 20 metres, you would have had her…” etc! I always seem to have a lot left in the last 100 metres and finish strongly. But I have been working a lot on my speed over the last few seasons and am much faster now than I was when I first started hurdling.
James: At this year’s European Under 23 Championships in Ostrava you finished in 5th place, running a personal best and Irish U23 record in the process. Can you describe that experience?
Jessie: It was amazing! It was the first time I had ever made a major final, and to run both a huge PB and a national record in the process was brilliant! But despite all of that, I will admit I was a little disappointed. I went into the Championships ranked 4th, so I was pretty confident I could make the final. But my semi-final run wasn’t that fast and I got lane 8 for the final. Although at the time I was delighted because I tend to run well when I am not thinking of what the other competitors are doing, in hindsight I can’t help but wonder could I have run that bit faster if I had been in the mix of the race from the start. If I had run just the tiniest fraction faster – 0.07 to be exact – I would have run the Olympic B standard and qualified to run the hurdles at the World Championships in Daegu. Or would I even have gotten a medal? So although I am obviously delighted with the race, I can’t help but be a bit hard on myself, but I think that’s the same for most athletes, we are never happy!
James: This year you have made impressive progress and have knocked over 2 seconds off your pre-2011 personal best. What have you done differently this season?
Jessie: I have been asked this question so many times in the past few months, and to be honest, I didn’t do anything particularly different! I was in my final year in college so I was really busy with a heavy workload, including a thesis to write. I was spending my days in the library and training was my break, the thing I looked forward to every day. It made me appreciate training so much more and I was enjoying it more than ever. It made me realise how important it is to actually enjoy training, and not let it just become part of the routine! Another major factor was that this season for the first time I had a group of hurdlers to train with, whereas before I did all hurdling on my own. Training with Thomas, Timmy Crowe and Jess Zebo made hurdles training more fun but it also made me push myself much more than I ever would when I was running on my own!
James: What are your goals for 2012?
Jessie: I have a few goals for 2012. I have already run the qualifying time for the European Championships in Helsinki next year, but my goal would be to make the final at it. My other major goal is to run a personal best, specifically a time that is below the Olympic A standard of 55.4 to guarantee my spot on the team for London. If (and when) I get to the Olympics I would love to make it out of my heats and into the semi-final too! I also want to run a pb in the 400m flat to solidify my spot on the 4×400 team, and maybe to get a run or two with the team throughout the season!
James: You were the sub for the Irish 4x400m relay team at this year’s World Championships. How did you enjoy the experience of being part of the Irish athletics team in Daegu?
Jessie: I loved every minute of it! It was such an honour to be selected for the Irish team, and for my senior debut at a major championships to be at the World championships was a huge added bonus! I was a bit nervous heading to Daegu, being the youngest on the team and not knowing a lot of the team that well, especially seeing as I was travelling straight from the World University Games in China where I was on a team with people I knew really well. But I needn’t have worried at all! We all got on really well and everyone was so supportive of each other. It was such a good experience for me to be sharing an apartment with so many experienced athletes, listening to their stories about past championships and Olympics. Their words of wisdom and their advice was really helpful to me as an athlete at the start of my senior career! Although I was disappointed not to get to run, just being there was an amazing experience and a real eye opener. Watching the events from the track made it seem less daunting than watching it on tv. And staying in the athlete’s village make me realise that off the track we are all equal – we all had to queue for the same buffet in the dining hall, stay in the same apartments . A few days before the relay our team got matching tattoos at the village, and while I was getting mine done a female javelin thrower I had watched on TV only a few weeks beforehand was beside me getting the German flag painted on her nails. I thought that was a funny example of how everyone does the same kind of thing at championships to keep the boredom away! The whole experience made me more determined than ever to run well next season and to prove that I can compete with the best athletes in the world! It was the perfect ending to what was a really good season.
James: Were you disappointed that there were no Irish broadcasters in Daegu to cover the championships?
Jessie: It was disappointing that there were no Irish broadcasters in Daegu, to give people at home an Irish perspective when watching coverage of the championships and to encourage the general public to watch our athletes. Without Irish broadcasters the championships were not as easily accessible, meaning it was probably only athletics fans who watched the coverage. Although the British and Eurosport coverage featured the Irish athletes, there wasn’t the same focus on them. Although not having the Irish in-studio commentary was not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t always agree with what the regular commentators have to say. Hopefully next year there will be Irish coverage of the Europeans and the Olympics to encourage more Irish interest in athletics.
James: What would an average week of training be like at this time of the year, specifically in terms of key sessions? How does off-season winter training differ from spring and summer training?
Jessie: Now that I am finished college, I have been able to add extra sessions into my week that last year I didn’t have the time to fit in. At this time of year on the track I will do a speed / speed endurance session, an endurance type session, a technical session which includes hurdling every other week. Every Sunday morning we do hill running or fartlek. I also do circuits, two weights sessions, medicine ball strength and conditioning session and plyometrics, and two long runs a week (long being around 20-30 minutes!) Winter training is more about building strength and endurance and working on weaknesses. Runs will be longer but with shorter recoveries, and it’s all about “getting through the session”. By the time we get to spring and summer we are working on speed, race plans and stride patterns. We will get full recovery between runs in order to be able to go full out for each run and hit “race pace”. I wouldn’t come home from summer training sessions feeling like I’m half dead the way I would in the winter!
James: What are your favourite and least favourite training sessions?
Jessie: As crazy as it sounds I enjoy speed endurance sessions, the ones that by the time it’s over I can barely move and I am full of lactic acid, because I really feel like I have worked hard! At the moment my least favourite sessions are going for long runs because I have lost my iPod so I get really bored, and I hate that I have a red face for the next few hours after it! I would have always said gym sessions were my least favourite, but this year I am actually enjoying them.
James: The depth of quality coming through in Ireland in the 400m Hurdles is particularly strong. How significant has the formation of the Irish Hurdlers Series been in raising the overall standard in the event?
Jessie: I think the hurdles series has been great for hurdling in Ireland. The online site which is easily accessible through Facebook has been a great way of forming a sort of hurdles community in Irish athletics. It has kept all of us up to date with news that concerns hurdlers, such as articles, news and even polls that get all of us involved. It has definitely increased the amount of interest in hurdling and this probably has helped to raise the overall standard.
James: Your brother Thomas has also had a breakthrough year, running 50.06 in the 400m Hurdles, moving him up to second on the Irish all-time list. How much does it benefit you to have somebody so close to you also competing at a high level? Is there much competitiveness?
Jessie: He has had a brilliant year, shocking everyone, especially himself I think! We always knew he could be good, but taking 6 seconds off his PB in a year is crazy!! I think having the two of us in the one house training and competing at the same level has been really good for us. I really like having him in the training group because we get on really well and have a laugh together. We are really supportive of each other in training and in competition, and seeing one do well encourages the other to try to do better; we always want to outdo each other! There has always been a lot of sibling rivalry between the two of us, which started on the day he was born, as it just so happened to be my 3rd birthday! But it’s all healthy competition; we get on really well and are really happy to see each other succeed!
James: There have been suggestions by some that the height of the women’s 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles should be increased, to place greater importance on technique. What are your thoughts on this?
Jessie: If this change were to be made to the hurdle heights I would give it my full support. I think that women’s hurdles are too low relative to the men’s; 2’6” is very small compared to 3. I would be happy if my hurdles were a height higher as it would eliminate a lot of girls who are just good 400m runners and jump the hurdles rather than hurdle them. It would make it a more technical event, like it should be.
James: In Ireland, could more be done to get the regular Joe Soap, regardless of age or ability, onto the track rather than having a disproportionate number of participants in our sport competing in road races, fun runs and marathons? Should track running be made more accessible to the everyday runner?
Jessie: To be honest I think track running is very accessible; athletics clubs are readily available all over the country and are open for anyone to join. I don’t believe that there is a need to move people from the roads and onto the track. I think there are so many people involved in fun running because it is “fun” running. A lot of people like to join road running groups and take part in fun runs to get fit and / or to have a regular hobby, or they can do it in a group to make it a sociable event. They don’t have to be competitive; times don’t have to matter. I also think a lot of people involved in this kind of running are that bit older, and I think athletics is one of those sports that is more difficult to just take up once you are past your early 20s, and so road running can seem more appealing. In my opinion, I would love to see more young people being guided towards athletics from a young age rather than GAA, I believe that there are a huge number of really talented athletes running around GAA pitches all over the country just waiting to be discovered!!
James: What are your views on athletes with B-Standards being sent to the Olympic Games?
Jessie: I think it is ridiculous that the Olympic Council is saying that they won’t be sending B standards to London. The Olympic Games have never been and probably won’t be this close to home again for a long time. I think younger and developing athletes especially should be sent for experience. I think having the Games so close to home is the perfect opportunity to allow these athletes to gain valuable experience of competing at the highest level and just being in that kind of environment without the pressure and high expectations to perform that A standard, and more senior athletes would qualify. By not sending B standard athletes the team sent to London will be significantly smaller. A bigger team will mean more coverage of Irish athletes in the media and in turn should cause an increase in interest from the general Irish public in athletics. Sending a small team to compete at the top level could even reinforce athletics’ status as a minority sport in Ireland.
James: When not competing, do you enjoy watching athletics? What current athlete do you like watching the most?
Jessie: I really enjoy watching athletics. During the summer I loved sitting down for the afternoon and watching coverage of the Diamond leagues and other events. It makes it even more interesting now that I recognise the athletes from Daegu! I watched the final round of the Diamond league at home after the World Championships, and I couldn’t help pointing out all of the athletes who I had encountered when I was there, it was a bit surreal!! I have always loved watching the high jump, and Blanca Vlasic is a particular favourite because she is such a classy athlete, but at the same time turns her competitions into a performance. She has such a presence when she is competing; she somehow manages to command the attention of the entire stadium to watch her as she jumps. And I especially love when she jumps well, her celebrations are always entertaining! I obviously love watching Bolt run, that’s pretty much a given! Over in Daegu the excitement in the stadium on the nights he was competing was palpable, the whole stadium fell silent, and all eyes were on him! I really love watching athletes who are also performers, because at the end of the day athletics is a performance; they have the audience so why not?
James: Away from the track, what one country in the world would you like to visit most and why?
Jessie: I was in Australia for six months for a study abroad placement, and I thought it was amazing. I would love to go back and explore more of it, especially the outback in Central Australia and up North. It is such a vast country that it would take years of travel to see all of it! I would also like to travel around and see lots of North America. The only place I have been to in the States is Florida on a family holiday to Disney World, so I don’t think that really counts! I’d love to do a proper cross-country road trip across it and get to see as much of it as I can. It seems like a different world compared to Ireland!
James: That’s great Jessie. Thank you for your time and the very best of luck in 2012.
Jessie: Thanks! I’m sure I will see or hear from you again in 2012!