Finishing kick can raise the bar again for Thomas Barr
Our first Olympic sprint finalist in 84 years has what it takes to win a medal on Thursday
Thomas Barr of Ireland competes during the Men’s 400m Hurdles semi-finals earlier this week. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Every athlete aspires towards the perfect race, preferably in an Olympic final, their chance to leave an indelible mark on history. And Thomas Barr is now staring straight at it.
In getting into the final of the 400 metres hurdles, Barr knows what the perfect race might feel like, although he’s not quite there yet. Another inch closer to perfection and his mark on Olympic history may well be beautifully bookended.
Because in becoming Ireland’s first Olympic sprint event finalist in 84 years, he’s also traced the race right back to Bob Tisdall, who showed up at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles similarly unheralded, and of course stunned the big favourites of the time to win gold.
Barr will have to beat a few big favourites here to win, not least the American Kerron Clement, twice world champion and 2008 silver medallist in Beijing – yet everything about the way Barr won his semi-final on Tuesday suggests he’s capable of winning a medal.
That semi-final win also earned the Waterford athlete the perfect draw, starting in lane four for the eight-man showdown, set for 4pm Irish time. He’ll have Clement on his outside and Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson, who won bronze in London four years ago, on his inside. Beat one or both and Barr has a great chance of medalling.
“Anything can happen in the final, anything,” he said, emphasising the “anything” for good reason: his semi-final time of 48.39 seconds took 0.26 seconds off his Irish record, set last year, and was the third-fastest across the three semi-finals.
“I’m not going to say it was the perfect race, because I would like to go faster,” he said. “There are definitely one or two things I can work on. I don’t think I got out as hard as I could have, and there’s definitely 0.10 of a second there.
“I just went out there completely relaxed, just saw it as another race, another 10 hurdles to get over. It’s just about replicating that now, maybe just a little faster. I don’t mean to be cocky, but I know I have a strong finish compared to a lot of guys in the world, and I know if I’m in touching distance I can actually catch guys . . . I’m just delighted and happy and relieved that everything came together at the right time, because I could just as easily have been not here, not in Rio, not thinking about a final. And that’s incredible.”
Indeed it was. The 24-year-old was not only competing in his first Olympics, but was coming off a season of injuries, first to his hip, then his groin. His coaches, the husband-and-wife team of Hayley and Drew Harrison, aren’t in Rio but are watching from home, and one of the first things he did after his semi-final was consult was them.
“I know Hayley always has a couple of things to nitpick at,” Barr said. “Hopefully I can correct them . . . I’ve been riddled with injury this season, and it was only yesterday, after my heat, that I finally got some confidence back. But as rounds go through, I find it gets easier, as I get familiar with the warm-up track, the call room, everything. It worked well for me too at the World University Games last summer [winning gold].”
Barr’s greatest strength may well be his finishing kick, particularly when he unleashes it like he did on Tuesday night.
“Those semi-finals were a real shake-up,” Barr said. “Some of the top guys didn’t make it through. I felt a 48.5 was right within my reach, if I just nailed it, and then I come away with 48.39, which is ridiculous . . . The Europeans gave me a baseline, something to work on. I was really frustrated, because I didn’t want to be a 50-second man this season. Every session I just got better and better, and things were just clicking into place. And Hayley and Drew’s magic just got me there.”
They discovered his talent after Barr’s older sister, Jesse, dragged him along to the Ferrybank club in Waterford: “When I started out, I suppose I wasn’t fast enough for the 400 metres flat, and my hurdling technique was okay. Before working with them, I’d no idea what a stride pattern was, or touchdown time, or bringing the trail leg through. It’s now all about refining and perfecting the technique as much as possible.”