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How Barr's Bravery Helped Ireland Realize Olympic Dreams

June 11, 2020  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Barr (center, pink headband) and the Ireland women's national field hockey team earned a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.

Barr (center, pink headband) and the Ireland women's national field hockey team earned a spot in the Tokyo Olympics.

By Alan Good, Liberty Field Hockey Assistant Coach

Two games had come and gone without a goal, and with no winner decided, the dreaded penalty shootout had arrived. Bethany Barr had been in pressure situations before, but not with an Olympic berth on the line.

Bethany and her twin sister Serena, who starred for the Liberty Flames from 2013-16 and also played there alongside older sister Natalie (2012-15), are now members of Ireland's national field hockey team. Despite her relative rookie status, having debuted early in 2019, Bethany found herself selected as one of Ireland's five penalty takers following the stalemate against Canada in last November's Olympic qualifiers in Dublin.

The stakes were pretty high headed into the winner-takes-all shootout. Ireland had never qualified a female team for the Olympics, and a record field hockey crowd of 6,000 at Donnybrook - a rugby stadium repurposed for a one-off field hockey occasion - looked on nervously, hoping to witness some Irish sporting history.

"I didn't start practicing shootouts until a couple of weeks before the Olympic qualifier," Bethany told the current LUFH staff and players during a recent team Q&A session.

"I always said I didn't think I would be able to handle the pressure. But it was Serena who said ‘You're good at these, you should be practicing and putting your hand up to take one'."

Bethany's turn came in the fourth round of the shootout, with Ireland down 3-1. She had eight seconds to score in a one-on-one with the Canadian goalkeeper Kaitlyn Williams, a 149-cap veteran who had kept out two of the three previous Irish efforts. Miss, and Ireland's Olympic dreams were dashed.

But Bethany glided right and then found a gap to shoot through Williams' legs to the bottom corner, keeping Ireland's hopes alive. With the shootout ending tied at 3-3, the Green Army went on to win in dramatic circumstances in sudden death, fellow NCAA alums Roisin Upton (UConn) and Ayeisha McFerran (Louisville) scoring and saving respectively to get Ireland over the line.

The television footage of the Irish team's outpouring of emotion amid wild celebrations in the immediate aftermath show the twins' teammate Lena Tice bearing a cross inked onto some tape on her wrist; the Barrs write Bible verses on theirs. They are among a handful of players on the Irish team who are followers of Christ and find ways to give themselves visual reminders of their higher purpose in the heat of competition.

"Your value and your worth is in the fact that you've been accepted by God, which means you can step on the pitch without any fear," explained Bethany.

"In the end, I could take that shootout without pressure because I was playing for God. Externally, the pressure was on me, but it didn't count as my value. I could step out in freedom and enjoy what I was there to do. 

"The spiritual side of things helps us hold things lightly and makes it easier and more fun in big moments. But we're still human, and I was so scared, and was praying in the lead-up to that moment.

"There have been times hockey has become more important than God to me. But I kept repeating ‘Audience of One' until I believed it. We can't do it out of our own will, we need to daily spend time with God."

The Barr sisters are effectively Liberty field hockey royalty. Natalie was the first to make the trek from Lurgan - the family's Northern Ireland hometown - to Lynchburg in 2012, with Bethany and Serena following her across the Atlantic Ocean in 2013. 

All three were part of the Lady Flames teams that won NorPac conference titles in 2013 - with Natalie scoring both Liberty goals in a 2-1 win over Stanford to secure the program's maiden championship - and 2014, earning tickets to the NCAA Field Hockey Championship.

Natalie went on to coach the team, and her sisters, as a graduate assistant, spending a season each with program founder Jodi Murphy (2016) and current head coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker (2017). Their paths diverged thereafter. Natalie returned home to Northern Ireland while Bethany (Dublin, Ireland) and Serena (Leeds, England) moved elsewhere for postgraduate studies. 

But prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the trio was back on the field together again, playing for the Irish national league outfit Belfast Harlequins, while the twins also juggle their commitments with the national team.

Bethany and Serena kindly gave of their time recently to pass on their wisdom, experiences and stories across a wide variety of topics over a couple of hours with Liberty's squad and team leadership council. A persistent theme of both conversations was how to use field hockey as an act of worship.

"Going to Liberty and being on a Christian team made us realize field hockey could be an act of worship," offered Serena. "People are watching, and you have an influence you don't even realize. You're not just wearing the name of Liberty. You're wearing the name of Christ.

"After we won the NorPac, we spontaneously broke out into a song of worship, which other people found incredible. But someone asked me afterwards - would we have done that if we lost? It reminded me that He is worthy of praise, no matter what."

*Look out for part two of our feature on the Barrs later this summer, in which Serena shares how to glorify God through relationships with teammates.