'Put me into a dogfight and I'll give it my best' - Thomas Barr confident ahead of tonight's semi
Barr ready to scrap for medal at European Championships
For a man whose life is centred on the creation of speed, it's no surprise that Thomas Barr - confessed car anorak that he is - reaches for an automotive metaphor when assessing his chances at this week's European Championships.
"A sleeper," he says, "is a car that doesn't look like much on the outside but when you put the foot down it plants you into the back of your seat.
"I'm not the tallest, I'm not the strongest, I don't look like the most aggressive on the track.
"Usually I'm smiling and I don't look the most competitive, but you put me into a dogfight and I'll give it my best shot."
Here's the thing: on paper, Barr's chances of winning gold in Berlin on Thursday night float somewhere between optimism and delusion.
His season's best of 48.99 for the 400m hurdles is more than a second off Norway's Karsten Warholm, the reigning world champion, and more than half a second off Cuban import Yasmani Copello of Turkey, the guy who beat Barr to an Olympic medal by one twentieth of a second in Rio.
And yet, something in Barr's psyche - perhaps the experience singed into his memory in Rio - tells the 26-year-old he can take anyone.
"When it comes to championships sometimes the favourites blunder, sometimes it just doesn't happen for them on the day and the pressure gets to them.
"You get guys you don't expect to come through and that was me in Rio, I wasn't expected to be anywhere near the medals and I was fourth."
To understand the ludicrous probability of that performance, you have to look at his 2016 as a whole.
Barr missed 11 weeks of training with a hip impingement in the spring, faltered through a rank-average season, unable to break 50 seconds, then travelled to Rio under threat of being a championship tourist.
But in his final few workouts at the holding camp, his form came together like an abstract painting that finally made sense.
Barr finished second in his heat in 48.93, won his semi-final in 48.39 before again smashing his Irish record in the final, finishing fourth in 47.97, a time that would have got him on the podium at all but one previous Olympics.
"I often look back myself and think, 'God, what did I do that year?' The other day I was thinking, 'what did I run in the semi-final, what did I run in the heats?' and (this year) I'm there or thereabouts."
This evening Barr will take to the track in Berlin's cavernous stadium - home to the 1936 Olympics - and try to repeat that feat of sorcery with a 48-second clocking in the semi-final, which would set him up perfectly for Thursday's final.
Ever since his 2017 season ground to a halt at last year's World Championships, today was the date circled on the calendar by his coaches, Hayley and Drew Harrison.
After qualifying for the semi-finals in London last August, Barr came down with gastroenteritis overnight and had to lie in his bed the following evening, watching the race on TV through a fog of nausea.
"We were planning this season when he was in his sick bed," says Hayley, who oversees Barr's training at his base at the University of Limerick.
"The winter training is very generic. The main target is to get through it without injuries and then the specific programme kicks in in May."
In Rio, the Harrisons' abbreviated programme clicked into place for Barr days before his first race, and while Barr's form coming to Berlin has been better, she again expects him to find another gear this week.
"He's got a great championship mentality," she says. "Just getting him to the start line is our job and then it's over to him."
Barr is joint-fifth on the 2018 rankings but, if he can rekindle that Rio form anything is possible.
"If you compared this year (to 2016) I'm ahead of where I was because in the in the lead-up to Rio I wasn't running these sort of times in training or on the track.
"In Rio the hidden bliss was that there was no pressure and each round I got through I was getting faster and faster so it was all a bonus."
This time around expectation will take to the track with him, particularly after a magic month for Irish athletics when medals cascaded like autumn leaves at underage level. At this level, though, Barr knows getting on that podium is a lot more difficult.
"Athletics is on a high at the moment and it almost feels like a duty to go out as senior athletes and reproduce what they did," he says.
"But I thrive on the championship mentality. I don't have any worries injury-wise or performance-wise, I know I can go out there and run a 48 in the semi-final. And in the final, it's a matter of letting the adrenaline and instincts take over and just unleash the bat out of hell."
Irish in action today
Brendan Boyce (50km race walk) 7.35am (Irish time)
Chris O’Donnell (men’s 400m heats) 9.35am
Claire Mooney, Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner (women’s 800m heats) 10.05
Phil Healy (women’s 100m semi-final) 6.05pm
Thomas Barr (men’s 400m hurdles semi-final) 6.55pm
Stephen Scullion (men’s 10,000m final) 7.20pm
European Championships, live
RTÉ2, 8.50/BBC2, 8.30/
Eurosport 1, 7.30
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