The 2016 Olympics provided highs, lows and more than a little controversy for Team Ireland. Four months later and there’s plenty of reflections — plus excitement about what 2017 holds. Cliona Foley got some Rio reflections.
(Fourth in the 400m hurdles final in Irish record of 47:97, 500th of a second off bronze medal)
“The Olympics met and surpassed my expectations but, in some ways it was ordinary, in that ordinary life carried on as it usually does when you go to race at a big competition. But it was really cool to be amongst the biggest sport stars in the world in the village. The Olympics has extra prestige and excitement though and I’m so glad I was able to pull it out on the day of the final. For so many people to take joy out of something that I do on a daily basis, that was such a great spin-off.
One funny story: My sports knowledge outside athletics is absolutely terrible and, on one of the first days myself, Alex Wright (race walker) and Ray Flynn (athletics’ official) were having lunch and this really attractive girl from Denmark came over and was looking to swap ‘pins’ (team badges). I had no Irish pins on me and the lads were messing and saying ‘give him your number there’ and she was fobbing us off and having a laugh. We asked how she got on and she said she was already finished and was going home the next day so we were like ‘sure give us your number there’ and she was like ‘ah no, I dated a Northern Irish guy before and it didn’t work out!’ The penny still didn’t drop with me! After she’d wandered off Alex told me it was Caroline Wozniacki and I was still like: Who?’
I completely surpassed my own performance expectations in Rio. What helped was probably having no real expectations! Once I got out of the first round I was in bonus territory and the lack of pressure, and having fresh legs and a fresh head on me really helped.
A lot of great things happened since. I got a crazy amount of fan mail, I never expected that! The nicest came from a few classes in a Waterford primary school, who sent me a whole folder of all these handmade cards and pictures. Some of them even made gold medals and they wrote stuff like ‘even though you didn’t get a medal fourth is still pretty good!’ That was really cute. It was addressed to ‘Thomas Barr, Olympian, Waterford’!
Finishing fourth in an Olympic final will open doors for me in terms of races in 2017. I’ll have to show form of course but should be getting more invites to bigger meets like Diamond League, but it’s also made me a bit of a target too. It has completely changed my life in terms of profile here at home.
I was never known outside Irish athletics circles before but now everyone seems to know who I am. That affects your privacy and can be a bit surreal. It’ll take me a bit of time to get used to but it’s been positive so far.
I’m back in Limerick now, training full-time as my studies are finished. The challenge is to get through the winter slog of training and stay injury-free and so far, so good. I won’t do an indoor season in 2017, August is the big dance next year as World Championships are in London. So many people have told me they’ve got their tickets so — no pressure! I took five weeks off after Rio but had a bit of a staycation to see friends and fulfil media obligations but I’m headed off to Meribel in France for a week’s snowboarding over Christmas, with some of my old college crew. It’s my first time in two years so I can’t wait!”
(2nd and 8th in her 200/100m breaststroke heats)
“Everone tells you the Olympics is ‘like nothing you’ve ever experienced before’ and it really is. As an athlete you go through your life as the one who’s a bit different but, in the Olympic Village, with 10,000 other athletes like you, you feel normal and yet special at the same time which was really cool. It’s a place that helps abnormal people feel normal! In Ireland we see the best in the world and think: ‘Wow, they’re special, they’re not like me’ but when you get to the Olympics you realise we’re all the same.
I didn’t meet my own performance expectations and that’s something I’m struggling with since. My goal to make a final wasn’t an unrealistic one, it was well within my reach time-wise but I made mistakes. I didn’t perform as well as I had hoped and I’m still trying to get my head around that.
“You don’t want to let people down but I feel like I did. People say: ‘Oh you didn’t, you’re fantastic’ but that’s not who I am. The reason I got to the Olympics is because I’m so driven and determined, I constantly keep striving and nothing is ever good enough, but you just try and keep moving on.
The drugs controversy (a prominent Russian doper was allowed compete in her event) I kinda expected. I wasn’t surprised to get a message the night before my first race saying: ‘The Russians are in’ but it was disappointing. The whole village was covered in posters saying: ‘Supporting clean sport’ and you’re standing there thinking: It’s not and you know it’s not!’
That’s extremely frustrating and disheartening but I can’t blame my performance on her at all. What I did in the pool was down to me.
I’ve finished my studies in the University of Calgary but I’m back there training, first for the World Short Course Championship which Canada hosted in Windsor in early December. I’ve just trained at my own pace so I can enjoy training and racing again and, though I wasn’t 100% happy with how I performed, I broke the Irish record in 100m breaststroke.
I’ve already qualified for the 2017 World Championships in Budapest and may also be eligible for World University Games and am also about to start coaching a group of 13-14-year-olds here while I’m training for Worlds. I’m also trying to see if I can get into a graduate programme at home to study medicine. I’d love to do it but I need a waiver of some kind to come back into the Irish third-level system.
The nicest thing to happen since Rio has been everyone’s response. Anyone who knows me knows my performance wasn’t what I wanted but everyone’s been so positive and encouraging since and understanding that athletes are people who dedicate our whole lives to sport.
My twin sister is getting married next Summer so we’re all delighted about that and, for the first time since I went to Canada I’ll actually be at home for New Year’s Eve this year as I don’t fly back until January 1.”
(8th in the 3m springboard diving final)
“The Olympics was a complete whirlwind. It felt like it was over before I knew it, even though I was there for nearly two and a half weeks before I competed. That meant I had lots of spare time so got to see other sports and explore the village where I shared an apartment with a few of the swimmers, a golf caddy and the marathon runner Paul Pollock.
Walking out into the Maracana for the opening ceremony was spine-tingling and a bit emotional, especially as I’m a big football fan. The prelims and semi–final were stressful but the parade for the diving final, realising you’re one of just 12 people in the world to make it, that was a ‘you’ve-made- it’ moment for me.
I’d never done a World Championships before. At the World Cup, where I qualified for Rio, the field was missing about 10 top divers. I also had an ankle injury beforehand and wasn’t able to do my hardest dives in Rio so all of that made finishing eighth even better.
Standing on that diving board was the most stressful two days in my life. It is very unusual to dive outdoors, I was also diving into a green pool for the first time ever and our prelims went ahead even though it was so windy that the sailing was cancelled that day!
The Chinese world champion from 2015 didn’t make the semi-final and the Olympic champion actually belly-flopped. We were all dealt the same cards, I just handled them better than a lot of others thanks to all the work I’d done with sports psychologist Stephen McIvor.
My re-dive in the semi-final was my scariest moment ever. I’ve never, ever asked for a re-dive before and the judges had actually rejected all the re-dive requests in the prelims. We had put an ‘inward three and a half’ in as my third dive to raise the degree of difficulty so it was a make-or- break dive. I heard a scream during it from the stands and I shot over to the referee afterwards.
When I did it again it was better. They had some kind of tense music on in the background which made it worse, but that dive actually got me into the final.
Making the Olympic final means I’ll be competing in the 2017 World Series for the world’s top eight which takes place all around the globe. I also have Europeans in Kiev and World Championships in Budapest in 2017 so it’s going to be a really busy year. An ankle injury meant I couldn’t do some of my harder dives in Rio but I should have those by the end of 2017 and have them perfected by the time 2020 comes around. I feel I’ve come back from Rio a 10-times better diver. I’m not a passenger now, I’m a serious contender.”
(Captained the first Irish hockey team to qualify for the Olympics since 1908)
“The scale and multi-sport element of the Olympics is like nothing I’d ever experienced before. No matter how well you’ve prepared for that mentally — and we had had strategies — it can still prove a little distracting. We didn’t go to the opening ceremony as we were playing the next morning but did make the closing ceremony.
There were a few things regarding the accommodation and sanitation that were probably a bit under-par but in an underdeveloped country like Brazil, where there is great poverty, that can happen.
How spread out everything was, in terms of the location of venues, was a little difficult. For us to leave the village to get to the hockey venue was between 45 minutes to an hour. For us to get to other venues was an hour and a half by bus or taxi, so it just made it kind of inaccessible and disjointed at times, which was a pity.
In terms of our own performance expectations, we were disappointed not to make the semi-finals. We played to our ranking so we didn’t under-perform either, but our goal was to play above our rankings. Our first game against India proved costly because we had opportunities but didn’t take them and essentially beat ourselves. In our final pool game we gave Argentina, the eventual winners, everything. It was 2-2 with eight minutes to go and even though a draw mightn’t have been enough for us it showed us where exactly we progressed in the five games.
One of the nicest things afterwards was coming home to hand-written letters from young boys and girls asking myself and my brother Conor to visit their hockey clubs. I’ve just replied today to a young girl from Clonmel who plays in Waterford. She said: ‘My mum allowed me to stay up until one o’clock to watch Ireland play.’ That’s half of what we wanted to achieve; to inspire the next generation of Irish hockey players. A letter like that gives you such a good feeling.
As I’ve done for the last three seasons I’m off to India on January 10 to play for a club in the professional Hockey India league, until the end of February and then come back to my Dutch club. The Irish team has a training camp in Spain in January to prepare for the first World Cup qualifier, which we are hosting in Stormont, in Belfast, on March 11-19. It’s fantastic to have a tournament of that calibre on home soil.
That’s the first qualification step for the 2018 World Cup in India. If successful there we’ll be going to World League semi-finals in July, which is the tournament we used to qualify for Rio and to cap off a very busy 2017 we also have European Championships in Amsterdam in August. Conor’s now back with his club in Brussels and we’re actually two games away from one another in the Euro Hockey League. We could yet be playing against one another in the semi-finals which would be quite something!”
(Finished 40th in triathlon from a field of 55 athletes)
“Rio put on a great show and it was a pretty cool experience but it was a bit disjointed with venues here and there and a lot of travel for everyone involved. Other things, like the Russian drugs story and our Irish controversies during Brazil, also took some of the shine away.
Our race venue at the Copacabana was actually an hour and a half from the athletes’ village so it made more sense to base ourselves in a hotel down there. That was best for our performance but a little bit isolating.
I got to the closing ceremony but watched the opening ceremony from our pre-Olympic base in Clermont, Florida, which was a bit surreal.
My swim, bike and run were what was required for a top 20 finish but one stupid little mistake in putting on my bike helmet cost me that and I’m not happy to have 40th beside my name. I’ve done it thousands of times and it’s never happened before, but when I went to put on my helmet the clasp got caught in the vents. Once I got it loose I fumbled and couldn’t get it closed and you can’t touch your bike until your helmet is closed. I actually ran 17th quickest off a much harder bike leg than what I should have had. That’s frustrating but I’ll get over that some day.
I raced in the ITU Grand Final in Mexico in September (32nd) but the best thing since Rio was getting married, to Sarah Early, on October 22. We didn’t tell anyone really, my mum didn’t know until the week before. We just had a really small humanist ceremony with about 16 to 17 family in Dublin. We did it our own way.
Going to an Olympics can inspire you to be better because it’s the pinnacle of the sporting world but I’m 36 now. I was the oldest guy in the field in Rio. You’re on the road 9-10 months a year to compete at the top level and I’m not willing to do that for another Olympic cycle.
I’d like to race internationally in 2017 but don’t see myself going much further than that. I’ll pick and choose some events and base myself in Ireland. I’d like to compete more here and maybe do some half- ironmans and also run for Leevale again.
I’m now looking at what I’m going to do now in life outside of elite sport. As an athlete you’re basically a sole trader for years and can bring that experience with you but, suddenly, you’re redundant and have to up-skill and find a new job. You can view it as an opportunity or scary but I see it as an opportunity.
The Olympics was always something I dreamed about as a kid, I especially remember Seoul 88 and Barcelona 92. Many people have a dream and don’t achieve it so it’s cool to have done that. I could have walked away after getting knocked down (by a car) in 2010 but you battle on and I had really good people around me.
I wanted to go out and do it and see how far I could go.”
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