Waterford siblings raise Barr for Irish performances in Helsinki

 

ATHLETICS EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS:IF THEY aren’t careful, Jessie and Thomas Barr could find their healthy sibling rivalry on the track turns into a battle for the headlines off of it.

They’re a little difficult to distinguish as it is: born in Waterford on the same day, three years apart, blessed with the same dark looks and athletic build, and fast establishing their talents in the same event – the uniquely challenging 400 metres hurdles.

After the opening session in the old Olympic Stadium on Wednesday it seemed Thomas might steal the spotlight, qualifying with ease in second place for his semi-final, aged just 19, in what is his first major championship appearance; while a little later Jessie, at 22, was only marginally less impressive in qualifying for her semi-final, finishing third.

Yesterday those roles were reversed – with Jessie running the fastest race of her life to make the final, while Thomas came very close to following suit, narrowly missing out, despite running the second-fastest race of his life.

Pity, because it would have made for a very special headline – although both athletes are still determined to chase their Olympic A standard before the cut-off date on Sunday week, which would surpass anything either of them has achieved.

Jessie went into her semi-final with a lifetime best of 56.16 seconds, knowing her quest to make the final would almost certainly to demand a sub-56. Running in the outside lane wouldn’t normally help, yet it didn’t bother her as she came home in fourth, running an excellent 55.93.

“Lane eight has always been good to me,” she said, “and because I’m taller it definitely suits me better than the tighter lanes. It meant as well I could just concentrate on my own race for the first 200 metres. I knew they’d come up on me, but I got my stride pattern a bit better than the heat, and know I can go a little faster again.”

There was a nervous wait as she watched the second semi-final, knowing only top three in each, plus the two fastest losers, would progress – but in the end Barr was safe: “I actually thought I’d run a little faster. I felt very close to the winner, and thought maybe I’d dipped under 55.5, which I knew was the Olympic A standard.

“It wasn’t to be today. Maybe in the final, fingers crossed, with a bit more atmosphere in the final. But it definitely shows the importance of these championships. Derval O’Rourke has always raised her game for the major championships, and I think many Irish athletes are like that, too. I know I’ve raised myself to my best level here.”

Around three hours later Thomas lined up, the same 10 hurdles to clear over the same 400 metres, and finished fifth in 50.22 – his second-fastest ever, but not quite fast enough to put him in the mix for qualification. Only the first two, and two fastest finishers, from the three semi-finals progressed – and with all four men ahead of him breaking 50 seconds that final proved one step too far.

“Close, but no cigar,” he said with a smile – as neither he nor Jessie ever stops smiling. “I always knew it would take a sub-50 and I really thought I had that in me. The wind in the face coming off the back stretch threw me off a bit, but then I finished very strong. Just not strong enough.

“I didn’t feel quite as fresh as yesterday, and didn’t get out too well, but still ran 50.22. So if I can correct a few of those things there’s obviously more there.”

For a moment, however, he did reveal a tinge of disappointment:

“With Jessie getting through this morning I was really hoping to do the same. I’m absolutely delighted for her, to make that final, in a personal best. I know how hard she’s worked all year. I’m just gutted I can’t be there as well, to share it. But I will share it from the sideline.”

Like Jessie, Thomas is based at the University of Limerick, working under the coaching partnership of Drew and Hayley Harrison, and he needs to run 49.50 to get to London – not impossible: “I have two more races, one in Belgium, then nationals next weekend. It’s something I’ve been aiming at all year and I will be gutted if it doesn’t happen. But I know as well that 2016 will be the year for me.”

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