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After Rio exploits, big hopes to raise the Barr in 'one of the hottest events on the track'

Thomas Barr loves rising to the occasion of a big championships. It’s time to do so at the 2020 Olympic Games.

THOMAS BARR CASTS his mind back to Rio 2016.

His debut Olympic Games was the definition of a bittersweet one as he finished fourth in the 400m hurdles final, well and truly exceeding all expectations.

thomas-barr-after-finishing-fourth Thomas Barr after finishing fourth in the 400m hurdles final at Rio 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It was remembered as one of the best-fourth place finishes ever achieved by an Irish athlete as the Waterford man clocked a PB and broke his own national record. Sickeningly, his stunning time of 47.97 would have been good enough to medal at each of the previous three Olympics.

Barr enjoyed an incredible run of results at Rio’s Olympic Stadium, ending with the agony of fourth, the best and worst place away from the podium.

His sensational debut Games came after a nightmare build-up. Injury struggles from the February to April left his golden ticket hanging in the balance as he missed a lot of key training.

“It was probably my worst year behind the scenes for training, it was my most stressful year,” the 28-year-old recalled, speaking to the media before Tokyo 2020 in early June.

“I was injured. That dream of even getting on the plane to Rio was slipping away day by day as time went on. We eventually cracked the back of the injury and got back into training and ended up getting on the plane.

“So my expectations went from, ‘I want to get to a final and I want to be challenging for medals,’ to, ‘I would be happy just to get on the plane’.

“When I got into the heats I was extremely nervous because I had no idea where I was at, I had no idea how I was going to perform and then ended up qualifying for the semi-finals. Then there was a huge wave of pressure released and I felt ‘Okay, I’m back in shape, back on track’ almost, as to what my original goal was.

“I ended up going out in the semi-final and I was in bonus territory then and ended up breaking the Irish record and qualifying for the final and I was completely just riding the wave.

“So whatever expectation I had was completely slashed in half, slashed to nothing really, until I was actually out there and competing. Initially I thought I was going to go out there and bow out in the heats but I ended up going out and just pulling it off.”

Long before that brilliant fourth-place finish he pulled off, and way behind the scenes, there was a time he was unsure he even wanted to go to Brazil.

The thoughts of not doing himself justice over there gnawed away at him, though at the same time, he was thinking about how much participation and experience would mean going forward.

It was a fine balance, but one Barr mastered along with his coaches, Hayley and Drew Harrison, getting up to speed just in time to take the biggest stage in the world by storm.

“I didn’t want to go out there and just make up the numbers, to be honest,” he recalls. “I was in really good shape the year before and I didn’t really want to go out and embarrass myself on the world’s biggest stage.

“At the same time, I was saying in my head ‘If I can get myself on that plane to Rio, at least then I have a chance to prove myself,’ and also, I was trying to get as much experience as I could. The Olympic Games is the biggest stage in the world so I’m going to go out there, soak it all up, gain as much experience as I can with the mentality of looking forward to the next championships I’d go to.

“I had all the experience. I’d experienced the track, I’d experienced the stadium and all of that but I wanted to go out there and kind of perform and I ended up coming away with both really so it was bonus territory.”

From that, he took massive learnings. It was solid proof that things often work out even though they don’t go to plan. Preparation might be far from ideal but the performance may still come, despite all the gut-wrenching lows and bumps along the road.

Trust the process, as they say.

“I mean in an ideal world, every athlete wants to run at their best all the time,” he nods. “Noone wants to get injured, but I think they’re just normal setbacks and I learned a huge amount from that year to know that even if things don’t go right, the end goal is still the same and it’s still achievable.

“Relax. If things go pear-shaped, there is still a way back, it’s not the end of the world. It gave me huge confidence and I learned a lot from that, to just stay focused and confident and not drop the head — to keep working to the goal which is what I did.

“It was tough back then because I did think, ‘What’s the point? I’m going in circles here, I’m not going anywhere,’ but my close network of friends, my family, my parents, in particular, were really, really supportive of just getting me back, my head straight really, back on the straight and narrow and back training. And it did give me a new perspective when I did come out and perform after coming through all of that: ‘Okay, the hard work all paid off.’ The dark days were gone through and we were out the other end, and it paid off even more than I could have thought.

“It just shows that even if things don’t go to plan — and to be honest there’s a lot of times I just don’t plan for things because sometimes you’re better off that way really. Just roll with the punches.”

That’s what Thomas Barr does each and every day. And it’s no different at Tokyo 2020.

While his preparations have been much different than last time, they’ve similarly been far from ideal through the Covid-19 pandemic. That said, everyone is in the same boat this time around.

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Five years on from his exploits in South America, he’s ready to go again in East Asia, hoping to build on — and be known for more than — that fourth-place finish.

“It’s funny, Rio does feel like a long, long time ago, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like that long ago.

“I haven’t run a PB since Rio. In 2019, I was eighth in the World Championships with the [stomach] virus where I would have been in good shape to try and run a PB. In 2018, I came close in the Europeans but I’m just edging in there trying to get towards that now and to put Rio behind me and move forward again.

“It’s funny seeing a lot of Irish athletes at the moment running PBs and I want to be in that spectrum, I want to be one of those but I’m hoping that come Tokyo time once I’ve peaked for this year that I could be in PB shape. At the same time, it’s all about the performance in Tokyo and hopefully I’ll be able to do myself justice out there.”

Lining out in the 400m hurdles heats from 11.25am Tokyo time [3.25am Irish time, his is down for 3.40am] tomorrow, the Ferrybank AC star will hope to once again ride the crest of the Olympic wave.

The first name on Sonia O’Sullivan’s lips when asked by The42 for athletes to watch, Barr is coming in in fine form, having run a big season’s best time of 48.39 at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland last month, his fastest time since winning that European bronze in 2018.

“I definitely love rising to the occasion of a big championships. That’s what I base my whole season around, so whether it be the Olympic Games, the European Championships or the World Championships, that’s what my whole training plan is based around, getting in shape for that.”

tom barr

In the rhythm of racing now, the Dunmore East man is happily focusing on his individual event having helped the 4x400m mixed relay team qualify.

His is definitely a tougher field than in Rio, a much more contested event.

But Barr backs himself, always at home on the biggest stages.

“I think 400m hurdles at the moment is one of the hottest events going on the track,” he concluded. “There’s guys that are already running below 47 seconds.

“Two years ago there was Kartson Warholm, [Rai] Benjamin and [Abderrahman] Samba, they were the three big names and now you throw in Alison Dos Santos and Kyron McMaster, who are also running extremely quick early season. I’m hoping I can push on to the level they’re at towards Tokyo and to be in with the fighting chance of challenging.”

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Emma Duffy

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