Wunderbarr! Thomas Barr runs brave and bold to grab bronze
Irish runner ran second-fastest time of his life to take third place in 400m final in Berlin
Ireland’s Thomas Barr and France’s Ludvy Vaillant during the European Athletics Championships 400m Hurdle Final in Berlin. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
No way was he letting the chance slip this time, Thomas Barr ducking and diving and then simply reaching out to grab a brilliant European bronze medal in the final of the 400 metres hurdles. Wunderbarr, as they might say in German.
He ran brave and bold and all rolled into one crazy, fast race – that bronze medal won out in lane eight too, where only the strongest survive. And, with that, going where no Irishman has gone in the 84 years of these championships: stepping onto the medal podium of a sprint event.
That ceremony will come in central Berlin on Friday afternoon, the race by then all properly sunk in, although it may take that long: never had two men run sub-48 seconds in the European final, and Barr needed to run the second-fastest time of his life, 48.31 seconds, to seal bronze.
Only his Irish record of 47.97 is quicker, run when finishing fourth in the final of the Rio Olympics two years ago. In truth there were some echoes of that fourth place in the press seats of the Berlin Olympiastadion when Barr turned into the home stretch, the young Frenchman Ludvy Vaillant marginally ahead in the lane just inside him.
On the line, two of the very best in the business – world champion Karsten Warlhom from Norway and defending European champion Yasmani Copello, the Cuban-born athlete now representing Turkey – had won gold and silver, Warlhom in a lifetime best of 47.64, Copello also improving his national record in second with 47.81.
Timed to perfection
Then came Barr, defying the laws of one-lap hurdling by timing his run to perfection in lane eight, taking out Vaillant over the last two hurdles. Not that he was ever settling on fourth place again – not for one split second.
“No, no, not once,” he said, his utter calmness also defying this event, and against seven other runners, six of whom had run faster this season coming into the final. “Once I get to hurdle eight, and coming into the straight, I knew I had. I don’t really analyse my competitors, but I knew it, once we were literally neck-and-neck coming up to hurdle eight, and he [Vaillant] was coming up on me, I was like, ‘he’s mine . . . he’s not going to get this ahead of me.’
“And all day I was relaying this race through my head. At 3 or 4pm, an hour before I was due to go to the warm-up track, I was like, ‘let me go, let me at them, I’m ready to go.’ I was prepared for running my own race in lane eight, I was prepared for Warlhom and Copello coming up on my inside at hurdle four, six eight, or whenever.
“It’s so nice when you practise for something, and it just all finally comes together at the right time. It’s amazing. And as soon as I walked out onto the track it was just so reminiscent of Rio, there were Irish flags everywhere. I just felt really relaxed. I said, ‘let’s go.’
“And the year that’s in it, too, the 400m hurdles is in such a strong position right now. I thought, coming into this season, seeing all those 47s on the clock, I thought for God’s sake, this isn’t going to be the year. But then as my year progressed I knew I was getting into good shape. But this is something I have worked towards since Zurich. I messed it up in Zurich, I was injured in Amsterdam. I’ve finally, finally put it together this year.”
This, remember, in a near flat-out lap of the track lined with 10 hurdles, each 3ft high, where anything can and often does go wrong, and where Barr did everything right: going out hard, as he said he would, and using his vast reserves of strength and enthusiasm to hold off Vaillant, who finished fourth in his lifetime best of 48.42, the Waterford athlete thus edging him out by .11. He also beat out Rasmus Magi from Estonia, who won silver four years ago, fifth here.
“The last time I felt so relaxed, that ready to go, chomping at the bit kind of feeling, was Rio. I was for the semi-finals on Tuesday, as it was my first race. I thrive on rounds, I love going through the rounds. And lane eight was a blessing in disguise as I just put the blinkers on and went for it and it paid off. Funny, when you’re running a final like that you have no idea what is going to come up on the clock. That could have been a 49, a 50, a 47, but myself and Hayley knew I was in 48.2, 48.3 shape.”
At 26, two years on from Rio, he’d come to Berlin better equipped in other ways too, thanks in no small part to Drew and Hayley Harrison, his husband-and-wife coaching team at his training base in Limerick – vorsprung durch technik, as they say in the German car business.
“Both me and my coaches Drew and Hayley knew I was in 48.2, 48.3 shape, it was just a matter of getting it out at the right time. And whether I’m injured or healthy they get me into the shape I’ve needed, all the team around me helps me get through the winter slog. The last month we’ve known race upon race, 48-mid is there, but it hadn’t come out.
“That could have been a World or Olympic final, and I thought the talk was of medals and I knew it’d be hard-fought. I love that, I live for the championships. That’s the fastest European final ever and, like Rio, when I didn’t get a medal, and I could easily have done it again there. And be, like, typical, just my luck. But my luck turned this time.”
As if luck had anything to do with it.