Development & Alumni Relations Office 

MEET KIRSTY HEGARTY – THE QUEEN’S ENGINEERING GRADUATE AIMING FOR GOLD!  Olympic hopeful Kirsty Hegarty in Team GB tracksuit crouched in field with shotgun over her shoulder beside Team GB sign

22 April 2021

Meet Kirsty Hegarty (née Barr), Queen’s Aerospace Engineering graduate (MEng, 2012), one of the UK’s most talented athletes, and among Team GB medal hopefuls for the forthcoming Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympic Games, which start at the end of July.

When her name was formally announced in January, Kirsty was the first Northern Ireland athlete selected on Team GB for Tokyo 2020.

Since 2010, Kirsty has picked up countless individual and team Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals – at UK, international and world level – in what is known as Olympic Trap, more commonly referred to as clay pigeon shooting.

Kirsty Barr was born in September 1988 in Craigavon, County Armagh, the daughter of shooters Clifford and Sandra Barr, both of whom competed at international level. She attended Ballymena Academy in County Antrim before coming up to Queen’s to read Aerospace Engineering, during which time she also competed at the top level.

Speaking to the University as her training for Tokyo was entering its final three months, Kirsty said:  

“My parents have been amazing throughout my shooting career, and I guess as they always shot, and I grew up around the sport, I never considered that shooting wasn’t a sport for girls. I did of course notice when I was younger that apart from my mum there weren’t that many other ladies that did compete. Over the years I have seen more and more ladies take up the sport and it's great to see.

“Having watched her mother and father compete in a Home Nations tournament – and clearly, like them, loving the sport – it was no surprise when Kirsty took up shooting as a teenager, learning and perfecting her craft at the Thatch Clay Target Club in Broughshane, County Antrim.

“They have always stressed that it's a sport and therefore should be fun, and this is a great reminder that only when you are truly enjoying something will you perform to your true potential.” 

Queen’s – engineering and bursary support

With a logical mind, and a practical and systematic approach to problem solving, studying engineering seemed like the perfect fit and there’s no doubt, it was beneficial to her sporting career – and in more ways than one.

“I had looked at other universities throughout the UK but the reputation of Queen’s, coupled with the ability to train at my home range, swung the decision for me.

“Studying at Queen’s allowed me to further my shooting training, winning the Commonwealth European Division title in 2009 while in my second year. And while studying full time and training every weekend did not leave much time for other sports or activities, luckily my fellow students kept me grounded.”

Kirsty was awarded Bronze Bursaries (in 2009 and 2011) for Clay Pigeon shooting by Queen’s Sport, something that was of more than just financial value to her.

“Securing a Queen’s Bursary showed me that others believed in me. Someone, somewhere in the University looked at my application and thought yes, we believe in Kirsty, she could go all the way in her chosen sport.

“At a stage when I could have sat back and focused on my Uni work – giving shooting a break until I graduated – the bursary showed me that I could do more. OK, I wasn’t the most athletic person but I had a talent that other people recognised.

“This belief in my ability made me want to succeed, it made me want to compete and to do this with confidence in myself.”

The discipline known as Olympic Trap involves the release of small orange clay targets, about 10cm in diameter, from one of three traps in a bunker once the shooter calls ‘pull’. In a round, competitors shoot 25 targets from 5 different stands, each travelling 76m and varying in speed from 62mph to 65mph, at an angle of around 45 degrees and from 1.5m to 3m in height.

“It sounds more complicated than it is,” adds Kirsty. “I didn’t start this discipline when I first picked up a shotgun, starting instead with the domestic disciplines of Down the Line before moving to Automatic Ball Trap and then on to Olympic Trap.

“The domestic disciplines taught me the basics and as they are slower allowed me to develop my own shooting style.”

In addition to the academic qualifications necessary for her career – she’s now a Product Support Engineer at Bombardier Aerospace in Belfast – Kirsty learned useful lessons at University that she has since utilised in her sporting career.

“Sport is no different to anything else in life – it’s never perfect at the first attempt.

“During my degree we were tasked with taking a radio controlled aircraft and adapting it, to allow it to carry as much ballast as possible. Before being judged by the lecturers, we took the plane on many test flights, not all were successful but each time we reviewed what went well and what needed to change.

“Each iteration taught us something new, what worked and what didn’t work. If we had been judged on our first attempt I don’t think any of us would have passed that module.

“As an athlete you attend so many more competitions than you medal or even final at. And although you only want to remember those where you enjoyed success, it is every knock back that has made you change, develop and question – without losing your determination – that makes you into a winner.”

International sporting success

And Kirsty certainly is a winner, and can boast a very impressive haul of trophies to prove it, including:

  • Gold Medal (her first at international level) at the Commonwealth Shooting Championships in Delhi (2010)
  • Gold with Team GB Ladies at the World Shooting Championships (2015)
  • Bronze Medal in the mixed team event at the World Shotgun Championships (2018)
  • Silver Medal at the Commonwealth Games for Women’s Trap in Brisbane (2018)
  • Silver at the European Championships in Leobersdorf, Austria (2018)
  • Silver at the ISSF World Cup in Changwon, South Korea. (2019)
  • Bronze in the Mixed Team Trap event in Acapulco, Mexico (2019)
  • Silver at the ISSF World Cup in Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates (2019)

It was the Al Ain Silver medal which secured Team GB’s shooters a quota place in Tokyo. Twelve months later Kirsty was named alongside Seonaid McIntosh, Matt Coward-Holley and Aaron Heading.

Currently part of the UK Sport World-Class Performance Programme, which is funded by the National Lottery, Kirsty is counted among the UK’s most talented athletes deemed to have every chance of realising their potential in major competitions.

Though this status gives her certain privileges and support, the coronavirus pandemic – which resulted in the Olympic Games originally scheduled for last year to be time shifted to 2021 – has impacted on Kirsty’s training arrangements for the competition.

“With all the Covid regulations my training plan has been planned and replanned so many times I have lost count as to which iteration I am now on! I am currently spending 1 week at home, training alone on the range 1-2 days, followed by 1 week in England training 5-6 days on the range with the rest of the British Talent group.

“Usually by this stage in the year I would have already completed several international competitions however this has not been possible this year. I am hoping to get international competition in June, my first since March 2020.

“While at home and not on the range I had taken up swimming at the local leisure centre but since it closed I have been doing some jogging and Les Mills online classes at home to pass the time and ensure I will be ready for international competition when it starts again.”

Wishing Kirsty well in her pursuit of an Olympic medal, Paddy Gilmore, Development and Engagement Manager for Queen’s Sport said:

“Kirsty Hegarty is proof of what is possible when skill, determination and dedication – combined with opportunity and training – come together in the name of sport.

“As a former Queen’s Sport Bursary holder Kirsty also underscores the importance of supporting athletes, whatever their sport, while at University.   

“Making it to the Olympic Games is a huge achievement in itself; on behalf of all involved in sport at Queen’s I wish Kirsty the very best of luck as she goes for gold in Tokyo.”

Time management and planning

When asked what advice she would give to students trying to balance academic and sporting demands, Kirsty is very clear – it's all about good time management.

“Pulling an all-nighter to get that piece of course work done that was assigned 3 weeks ago but which you haven’t looked at yet and is due in tomorrow is not ideal!” she said.

“Once you get your assignments set time aside to complete them just as you set time aside to train. Getting stressed out – about coursework, due dates and exams – affects everyone differently, but I found it negatively impacted my sporting performances, which in turn made me feel awful.

“By planning when to study and when to train – and when to have time off away from study and training – allowed me to put my all into one task at a time.

And what if sport demands high levels of travelling or competition?  

“Be realistic about what's achievable, don’t be afraid to ask for an extension but do it in good time, not the day before the deadline!

“Time off is really important too, sport should be fun and if it’s getting too much step back, take some time off, spend time with your friends or just do something that makes you smile.

“Needing time away from training doesn't mean you have given up, it just means you are looking after yourself and you will come back stronger.

Fixing planes

Living in Belfast and married to husband Stephen (a fellow MEng graduate of the Class of 2012, currently Senior Design Engineer at Spirit AeroSystems) from Donegal Town since September 2016, when she’s not competing or preparing for the Olympic Games, Kirsty’s day job is at Bombardier. As a repair engineer she reviews damage reports from airline operators, evaluates the extent of the damage with other engineering functions, and writes schemes for the operators to allow them to make the repairs.

Grateful for the huge variety in her role – where she says ‘no two days are ever the same’ – Kirsty is one of a growing number of female engineers in Bombardier in STEM careers.  

“I can't say when I was little this was the job I dreamed of, but when you are a kid you are totally unaware of what's out there. I maybe dreamed of being a nurse but now I am fixing planes instead of people.

“The team I ended up in has such a great mix of people and the varied nature of the job keeps it interesting and appeals to my engineering brain.”

As the clock ticks down to Tokyo is there one particular thing about becoming an Olympian that Kirsty is looking forward to?

“I guess it is being a member of that small group of GB athletes; once an Olympian always an Olympian!

“It has taken many years of hard work and I know my family has given up so much to make this a possibility for me, so by getting there I will be able to say thanks on the biggest stage possible.”

With Olympic competition starting for Kirsty in just over 14 weeks, the entire University family wishes her all the best as she aims for gold.

If you would like to support the next generation of potential Olympians at Queen’s visit the Queen’s Foundation website or contact Paddy Gilmore, Queen’s Development and Engagement Manager, Queen’s Sport.

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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