Thomas Barr's 'joke' comment no longer seems so ridiculous
Waterford native taking remarkable return to form in his stride ahead of 400m hurdles final
He only said it as a joke, but now it no longer seems so ridiculous.
It was Monday afternoon in Rio, and deep in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium Thomas Barr was reflecting on a performance that shocked him, shocked everyone, and breathed the kiss of life to a dream he long thought had passed away.
The 24-year-old shrugged off recent injuries and mediocre form to blitz his way to the finish in his qualifying heat in 48.93, a run which made him the first Irishman since Bob Tisdall in 1932 to reach the Olympic 400m hurdles semi-final. Tisdall, by the way, went on to win gold.
"That's crazy," said Barr, looking bewildered. "I have to follow in his footsteps now."
He laughed, because the prospect was so absurd it seemed comical, but no more. Whisper it gently, but this could truly be happening.
If his heat was impressive, what he did the following night - digging deeper into his box of tricks and conjuring up a performance that bordered on sorcery - was even better. Barr smashed his own Irish record of 48.70, running 48.39 to win his semi-final and become the first Irish Olympic finallist in any sprint event for 84 years.
That was a heavy burden of history working against him, but before the race Barr had walked like a man without a care in the world, bouncing around hyperactively and waving to Irish fans in the stands.
"I thought: 'why do I need to be nervous?'" he asked. "It's just like any other race so I'll go out there and give it a lash."
Traditionally a slow starter, Barr scorched the first 300 metres, turning into the home straight in fourth place and only a couple of metres from the lead. As his rivals have learned on several occasions, that's a position from which he can deliver haymaker surges over the final two barriers, and that's exactly what he did, surging off the last hurdle and moving away with every stride.
"Jesus," he said. "That is unreal. I can't believe I'm standing here having run a 48.3. I didn't think I had that time in me. This year, with my preparation, nothing was good and I didn't feel prepared."
Indeed, just three weeks ago, Barr stood at the departure gates of Dublin airport and explained how he'd almost come to accept that this Olympics would not be what he'd hoped for.
In a way, he was right, for it's far surpassed even his most ambitious goals. At 4pm today, he will again walk to lane four for his date with destiny, a race he never thought he'd be part of.
"I actually thought the final was tomorrow," he said on Tuesday night. "I'm just so excited that everything came together because I could easily not have been here. I'm shaking like a leaf."
A member of Ferrybank AC, the Waterford native is now based in Limerick where he trains under the supervision of Drew and Hayley Harrison.
While Barr underlined his talent when he won the gold medal at the World University Games last year, he was out of action for 10 weeks earlier this year due to a hip injury.
A less than convincing performance at the European Championship in Amsterdam last month, when he bowed out in the semi-final despite posting a seasonal best of 50.09, certainly didn't hint at a breakthrough performance.
Barr did a degree in engineering before completing a masters in sports science earlier this year. His abiding recreational interest is in cars and, in particular, a branch of motorsport known as 'drifting' where drivers deliberately oversteer, causing a loss of traction in the rear wheels while attempting to control the car as it exits a corner. Together with close friend Dan O'Shea, he has become a devotees of the sport in recent years.
"We rent a shed in Limerick and my passion is tinkering around with the car and then hopefully reaping the benefits on the track," he explained. Being fast on and off the athletics track is his mission in life.
When Barr settles into his blocks today, to his left will be Javier Culson of Puerto Rico, a bronze medallist at the last Olympics. To his right will be Kerron Clement of the USA, a former world champion. He's in rarefied air but treasuring every breath.
Only Clement and Jamaica's Annsert Whyte have run faster than Barr this year, so a repeat of Tuesday's run should be enough to put him on the podium. If he finds an extra few tenths of a second, an athletics stadium could hear Amhrán na bhFiann for the first time at an Olympics since 1956. Stranger things have happened.
"I'll go out there with no pressure," he said. "Everything is a bonus from here. I don't mean to be cocky, but I know myself I have a strong finish. If I'm within touching distance I can catch guys over the last two hurdles."
Barr is likely to trail by several metres when the field turns for home, but if he can keep himself within striking distance and unleash a similarly lethal last 100m, this unlikely story may have a fairytale ending.
For Irish team-mate Ciara Everard, however, 2016 is a chapter of her career she'd rather close the book on. The 26-year-old trailed home eighth in her 800m heat yesterday in 2:07.91. In truth, just making the start line was a victory for Everard, who missed 10 weeks of training with a stress fracture in recent months.
"So many times I've watched this dream slip away and even a month ago I thought it was over," she said.
"We did everything we could. I can't explain how much of a battle it's been to get healthy. It's been horrible this summer, but my best years are to come."
Meanwhile, national record holder Tori Pena announced her retirement after bowing out in pole vault qualification on Tuesday.
Irish in action
ATHLETICS: Men’s 400m hurdles final Thomas Barr 4.0pm
GOLF: Women’s tournament Round 1 Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow 1.25pm and 2.47pm
MODERN PENTATHLON: Women’s Fencing Natalya Coyle 2.0pm
Men’s Fencing Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe 6.30pm
SAILING: Medal Race 49er Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern 6.05pm
TRIATHLON: Men’s medal race Bryan Keane 3.0pm