No longer the nearly man, Thomas Barr has become Ireland’s man for the big occasion after ending the summer as a European bronze medallist.
FOCUS, THOMAS. FOCUS.
The stadium falls deathly silent, the athletes tasered under starter’s instructions. Time to shut everything out, to get in that zone. Focus.
Replay the plan over and over, and over again. Tunnel vision. Blocks, gun, start, out hard, go. Simple.
Although it’s not. There’s nothing simple about a flat-out lap over 10 hurdles, each 3 foot high. Anything can happen, and quite often does.
For Thomas Barr, everything needed to go right. No margin for error; he’d already endured the agony of a near miss in Rio.
And so he went out hard, as was the plan. He put the blinkers on, the head down, and hit the top bend in prime position. Hurdles one, two, three, four, five and six. Still in it, still in with a shout.
World champion Karsten Warlhom from Norway and defending European champion Yasmani Copello of Turkey were pulling clear, engaging in their own race within the race, but Barr was there, running strong. And so was the Frenchman Ludvy Vaillant. Neck-and-neck.
Rio all over again? No chance. Not on Barr’s watch. Not this time. Hurdle eight, and he was gone, digging deeper than ever before, pushing his body beyond convention, going where no Irishman has gone in 84 years. The second-fastest time of his life. And a European bronze. All from lane eight, where few are bold and brave enough to medal from.
“I think I held my breath for the last 40 metres,” Barr tells The42. “When I came over that last hurdle, I held my breath to the finish line, and I think my eyes were just getting wider and wider as I realised that a medal was there.
“I realised from hurdle eight, actually. I could see where everyone was. Well where everyone ahead of me was. I knew I had the French guy inside me, but I couldn’t see anyone else in my periphery to the left.
“When I came off hurdle eight, and I still had nearly 100 metres to go, I was just like ‘nah, this French guy is mine, I’m getting this’. I’d be confident enough in my finish so I just thought it’s there and it’s mine.
“It was at that moment I was like ‘nah, sorry buddy.’”
In clocking a season’s best 48.31 to edge Vaillant by .11 down the home straight, Barr became the first Irishman to finish on the podium of a sprint event at the European Championships in 84 years, and in the process propelled his career to the heights it has always promised to scale.
Only his Irish record of 47.97 from the Olympic final, where he finished fourth two summers ago, was quicker and all of this coming after his 2017 season was wiped out due to gastroenteritis. Everything needed to go right on that glorious August night in Berlin, and Barr ensured it did with an odds-defying run.
“I knew where I was at and I knew if I could execute it on the day, third place was there for the taking,” he says.
“I wasn’t too nervous, I just felt prepared. It’s like if you have an exam and you’ve studied everything, you know everything back to front, and you’re like there’s nothing more I can do, just give me the exam now. I was kind of like that for the race, I was like that — just let me at them.
“I didn’t realise at the time but everyone told me afterwards that I seemed so relax on the track. I was walking around, smiling and waving around. I spotted my parents, some of my friends and my girlfriend.
“My Mum was going mad in the stadium apparently because it had got to the point of being called to the blocks and I was still looking around. She was shouting ‘when is he going to focus on what he’s doing, you need to focus Thomas, you need to focus!’
“But as soon as the stadium went quiet, that it was it then. I was focused and focused on the plan I had.”
It was all reminiscent of Rio — the green flags, the Irish support, the confidence and conviction. Although this time, he was in better shape, and better equipped, to fulfil all his promise. No near misses, no maybes, no regrets. A brilliant bronze, and the pure satisfaction of it all coming together.
He joins an elite group of Irish athletes to medal at the championships. Ronnie Delaney, Frank Murphy, Eamonn Coughlan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mark Carroll, Derval O’Rourke, Robert Heffernan, Mark English, Ciara Mageean and now Thomas Barr.
“I had a slow start to the season,” the Waterford athlete continues. “And you’re thinking this isn’t going to be my year either. And then you’re seeing all those 47s on the clock, but things started to click.
“I started to relax, I started to find that old rhythm I had and once I had the confidence to put speed on top of that, then I was starting to get faster times, but still wasn’t where I needed to be.
“I didn’t have any fast races under my belt going to Berlin but I thrive on rounds and was able to build up that momentum and luckily the fast races came at the championships. In the final I pulled out a performance. Finally it clicked.”
Barr’s achievement is more impressive when you consider the strength of European sprinting at present, and the fact it could have easily been a World or Olympic final given the calibre of athletes on the start-line. It could have easily slipped away from him, too, but it wasn’t happening a second time.
Under the guidance of Drew and Hayley Harrison, the husband-and-wife coaching team, Barr has been building towards this for the last four years, formulating a programme to ensure he peaks when it matters most. How they’ve nailed it.
From the nearly man, to Ireland’s man for the big occasion. And at 26, he’s nowhere near done.
“Yeah, I do bring my best to a championships and I think that’s a credit to my coaches. It’s been great to have that amount of people pushing me in the right direction. My body is in good nick and my training programme is right, so therefore I can just go out and execute it with confidence.
“Just do what I need to do. I rise to the occasion when it comes to championships and I thrive on rounds, I love having heats, semis and a final because you can build race-on-race.”
Four weeks have passed since, yet the magnitude of the achievement has not yet registered with Barr, even with the medal now providing a tangible representation of the hard work, dedication and sacrifices demanded at this level.
The moments after he crossed the line will stay with him forever — the sheer, unadulterated delight when glancing to the screen for confirmation of what he already knew — but the scenes outside the stadium afterwards, or the special homecoming in Dunmore East when thousands of locals turned out to welcome their hero home stand out.
His career has always promised this level of achievement but to finally fulfil it is a significant landmark, and even allowing for his insouciant personality, a considerable weight off his shoulders. No longer the fourth-placer, no longer remembered or defined by his agonising brush with glory in Rio.
“100%, it was a relief,” he admits. “It feels like a bit of a relief for it to finally happen because I’ve been promising it for so long. From 2014, I was in with a shout of winning a medal at the Europeans, 2016 I was injured leading up to Rio and now you’re looking at 2018 so that’s four years and there’s only three chances to win a medal.
“For it to have actually happened now, everything has to happen right for it to happen in the days, weeks and months leading up to it. For it all to come right at the right time was key. I could well be here sitting in three, seven, eight years at the end of my career with no medal so it has lifted a bit of a weight but it has made me hungry for more.
“I wouldn’t put more pressure on myself, I would say I’ve put more emphasis on medals. It’s not so much the age thing and running out of time but the fact I now know I can medal so I’ll do everything in my power to get it right.
“I don’t want to overcook it either and go to the other side of things where it starts to mentally drain me and if things go wrong and you’re wholly and solely involved and invested in athletics then your whole world comes crashing down.
“I know that’s not a good place to be in. I like to keep the balance, and it keeps me fresh for training. I’m not constantly thinking about training so not burnt out from the sport. I think that will keep me fresher for longer.”
For Barr, mixing athletics with other interests has always been important and he has been able to switch off completely in the last four weeks post-Berlin — a cursory glance at his Instagram confirms as much — but therein lies his winning formula.
“If it ain’t broke, I’m not going to fix it,” he laughs. Too right.
The plan is to gradually ease back into training in the next week or two, and build towards an indoor season which will put him in good stead heading into 2019, and the World Championships in Doha in late September/early October.
“One of my friends joked the other day that the logical sequence is fourth place in Rio, third place in Berlin so it’s surely silver in Doha,” Barr adds. “I would love to go one better again and get a World Championship medal. Of course I would.
All of that remains a distant thought, as for now Barr is happily enjoying his well-deserved time off after a long, hard season which ended in the most fulfilling fashion imaginable.
Even a month on, it’s all still a bit surreal, the medal casually resting in his tracksuit pocket.
“Yeah, it’s still quite raw and it won’t be until I get a chance to step back, or maybe when I’m in the middle of winter training or something, that it might actually register. It might not register for a couple of years, which I suspect is going to be the case.
“The magnitude and significance of it hasn’t hit me. Obviously I have the medal, I physically have it and I can see it and show it to everybody. It’s mad, I’m still going around in a little bit of a bubble as such. It almost feels like it means more to other people…
“It actually happened, it’s mad!”
Thomas Barr was speaking at the launch of the 2018 Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge. More details can be found here.
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