Neasa Fahy O’Donnell, UL Senior Executive Sports Officer and Assistant Head of Delegation for the World University Games 2015 Irish Team chats to Thomas Barr and Michelle Finn on how they manage to keep on top of their game!
“Sitting in the River Café on the UL Campus for a relaxing afternoon drinking a hot cuppa with these two, you’d think they were regular students just popping in for a chat , except they’re not! They’re two of our nation’s hopefuls for the 2016 Olympics and have probably put down more activity in a day than most of us do in a week. Balancing hectic training schedules fixed between academic study has meant a gruelling schedule for athletes Michelle Finn and Thomas Barr, Thomas having just graduated in January. Both are relaxed and focussed as they count down to Rio. I’m curious to see where their interest in sport came from, their aspirations and how they do it all !”
Thomas: I have always been active, and tried a whole array of sports from a young age. I came across athletics when I was about eight years old, eventually finding the long hurdles at the age of 15, and have stuck with it since! Michelle: I grew up outside the small village of Castlemagner in Co. Cork, playing almost every sport available within 10 miles of the area – Gaelic football, camogie, soccer, gymnastics and athletics. Both of my parents were runners so I’ve been running (for fun!) for as long as I can remember...somewhere along the way it got serious!
How have you managed to deal with the dual career of athlete / student?
T: I’ve just graduated with a Masters Degree in Sports Performance but being completely honest, at the time I didn’t find myself stressed out (with the odd exception) with trying to balance college and training because I was a little bit oblivious! In hindsight I realise it was tough, but I just didn’t think about the workload I had on my plate or how tired I may have been some days, and I simply got on with my daily training – college – training routine.
When I came to UL I studied an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and also joined a new training group under new coaches – Hayley and Drew Harrison. I’ve remained at UL ever since and it was under my new coaches, the Harrisons, that I began to make vast improvements.
M: I struggle - but time management is key!, it is hard there is no doubt about that, and you really want to do your best with both. I agree with Thomas, you just get on with it, I’m studying at the moment for my degree in PE and Irish teaching.
What has been your greatest sporting achievement to date?
T: In the past few years there have been so many high points in my athletics career. But without a shadow of a doubt, claiming the title of World University Games Champion has been my greatest achievement so far! M: Running the Olympic qualifying standard or competing at World Champs in Beijing last year.
You both have such a great outlook and positive attitude and are clearly influenced by positivity. Who are the biggest influences in your life – sporting and otherwise and why?
T: I think my parents are and always have been the biggest influencers in my life. They have brought me up to be the person I am today, and I trust their opinions and judgements on most topics. I say ‘most’ because both my dad and I are very stubborn! The apple doesn’t fall far… And professionally I’m not really one for heroes as such but Edwin Moses, a fellow 400m hurdler from the 1970s-80s, was an absolutely incredible man. During his career he dominated the event on the world stage, with an insane winning streak of 9 years, 9 months and 9 days!! What really makes him hero-worthy though is that while he was the undefeated top dog he still seemed quite humble and very respectful to his fellow competitors.
M: Winnie-the-Pooh - “If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in this ear” - wisest philosopher out there! Professionally – Tom Barr...great athlete, down to earth and all round legend!
I’m very proud to say that a UL student and UL graduate have qualified for the Olympics. But I guess four years ago you probably had no idea you’d be sitting here today as two of our nation’s hopefuls. If you were to rewind four years would you change anything?
T: This would take me back to my first year of college when I had no idea of my potential on the track, as I was running a leisurely 56 seconds for the 400m hurdles and didn’t see myself going anywhere in the sport. I was very close to giving up because I was stuck in a rut and saw so much more to life outside of athletics, especially in college. My parents convinced me to give it one more year to realise my potential, and I am glad I did! It’s crazy to think that my presence in athletics would be nonexistent without having made that decision so I wouldn’t want to change a thing, except for maybe my hairstyle back then...
M: Four years ago I would have been in the States. No regrets - but I would advise anyone who’s thinking of going to the US on an athletics scholarship to be aware of the NCAA rules about academics and competing; study something you’re interested in and don’t just go for the athletics.
After completing my Leaving Cert, I moved to Limerick to study Physical Education and Irish teaching at UL. After two years in UL, I decided to accept an athletics scholarship to the US and began focusing more on athletics than the other sports. I spent four years studying and running at the University of Western Kentucky University (BSc in Interdisciplinary Studies and Health, MSc in Organisational Communications). After graduating, I moved to Austin, Texas to work and train (with Rogue Athletic Club) for a year. I loved Austin and applied for a visa to stay for another few years but returned home to compete at the Irish National Championships in the meantime. While I was home my first visa expired and second was denied (still waiting to hear back on the appeal!!) and so after almost a year of working bits and pieces of jobs in Cork, I returned to Limerick to complete my degree in PE and Irish teaching and I’m currently in my 3rd year of the course (and very happy with my decision to come back!). The last four years have been an adventure but it has all come full circle and I’ll be running for my country in the Rio Olympics in the coming months and I’m really proud of that.
And speaking of Rio 2016, what are your expectations / aspirations ?
T: I don’t want to be counting my chickens before they hatch. But off the back of last year and the fact that training is going well so far, I would like to go one better than last year’s World Championships and make the Olympic Final. It may be a long shot for my first Olympics but all going well it’s not too far off realistic either I hope! But my priority out in Rio is to enjoy it. There’s few people who have the honour of representing their country at an Olympic Games so I’ll be soaking up the whole experience as it’s one I won’t want to forget.
M: Would love to make the final, but it’s possibly a long shot; I’ll be happy with a personal best or a good race. It’s such an honour, I agree with Tom, I’m going to soak up the experience.
And after Rio - where do you see yourself 5 years from now in terms of your career / professional sport direction?
T: It’s difficult for me to look ahead to tomorrow, let alone in five years, but that would bring us to just after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and it’s a big aim in my career to do damage at that! I will be 28 at that stage, which, depending on how my body is at that stage, could see me beginning to wind down my career, or else gearing up to the 2024 Olympics. I could be around for a long time yet.
M: I find it hard to plan past dinner so who knows...!
Thomas will compete in the 400m hurdles and Michelle in the 3,000m steeplechase in the upcoming Rio Olympics.