When Thomas Barr pops up on the round-table zoom with the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI), discussing preparations for Paris next summer, there is some gentle tiptoeing around the first question of whether he’d even want to be there.
Barr turns 32 next July, two days before those games begin, not exactly ancient by running standards in the 400 metres hurdles, although it will be eight years since he ran the still fastest time of his life, 47.97 seconds, to finish fourth in the Rio Olympics – just .05 off bronze.
Two years later, Barr won bronze in the European Championships, only since then his luck could be politely described as lousy. At the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, he clipped a hurdle late on and missed the final by one place, still running 48.26, the second fastest time of his life.
In 2022, he also missed the European Championships final in Munich by one place. Last summer, a week after winning his 11th national title in Santry, he tore a calf muscle, forcing his withdrawal from what would have been his fifth successive World Championships in Budapest.
Throughout all that, for better or for worse, Barr never lost his trademark positivity, and it turns out he’s still every bit as determined to carry that through to Paris. It may not necessarily mark the stop sign of his career, although he is treating it that way.
“There’s a large part of me that’s like, ‘I’ll be 32 next summer, I’ve had three very good Olympic cycles’, and that’s it, I’m done,” he says. “I don’t want to race again after next year.
“I needed that endpoint to spur me on to think, right, we’ve one more year. Because of the calf injury and the Achilles, the year previous, I feel I might have a bit of unfinished business. I’m not calling it my final year just yet, but I’d be very happy to walk away at the end of this year and leave it at that, depending on how it goes.”
He’s not denying his body is already telling him it won’t be getting any easier; he’s also nearing the completion of his entirely self-built house in Limerick. Some thoughts are already drifting beyond Paris.
“Yeah, as in I’m the labourer, the plasterer, the block layer, the carpenter, all of those in between. It’s nice to have something else going on, I might only spend a couple of hours at it a day.
“And the body is definitely telling me to take a step back, for sure. But at the moment I’m going to ignore it, give it one more year, and see how it goes.”
He retains a firm self-belief that he can run close to 47 seconds again, once he avoids any further injury, and Paris might just present the best chance of that. Karsten Warholm won the gold medal in Tokyo in 45.95 seconds, so times have moved on considerably anyway.
“Even coming into last year, all the markers were there, other than I had the Achilles on my left leg, then I tore my calf in my right leg, everything in training was pointing to me getting back to that low 48, possibly slip under.
“It’s much more difficult, but I’m still enjoying it just as much now as when I started or when I was in college. We’ve a fantastic group, 40 people on the track, that isn’t even the full squad. There’s a bit of buzz, a bit of craic, and I’ve always said once that enjoyment disappears for me, I’ll disappear, but that is still very much firmly there.”
As it transpired a time of 48.3 would have made the final in Budapest, Barr watching that from a gym in Limerick.
“While it was bittersweet, the last two or three years, that one race [Tokyo] has given me a huge amount of confidence . . . A lot of talk after Rio was ‘was it a one off?’ But in the Olympic semi-final, I nearly went out and replicated what I did in Rio, only I hit a hurdle, and there’s no doubt in my mind I can get back to that kind of shape.”
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