Just weeks before the Olympics, Thomas Barr thought 2016 was a write-off, but little did he know of the miracle and madness that was about to unfold in Rio.
Dublin airport, July 28, and as he prepares to fly to Brazil for his first Olympic Games, Thomas Barr is his typically relaxed self, shooting the breeze with those around about anything but athletics, cracking jokes about the Rio nightlife and just how much craic – the uniquely Irish word for fun – would be had once their events had finished.
Barr is not one to mince the truth, and when a recorder is placed in front of his face, he doesn't put any gloss on his current form – his chances in Rio are slim to none.
“I’m not expected to do well because of the injury problems,” he says. “It’s disappointing I’m not going to be at the same level I was last year, but I’m going into this on a wing and a prayer.”
In a sense, he was right, for Barr did not replicate 2015, a year in which he won the World University Games title and reached the semi-final at the IAAF World Championships – he went several notches above, obliterating his national record and becoming the first Irish sprinter in 84 years to reach an Olympic final.
As he stood in that airport, however, little did he know that the next time he would walk through it he would be a national sporting icon, have hundreds of cameras flashing in his face, and his entire country knowing his name.
The Irish are typically a self-deprecating bunch, a nation which prefers their sportspeople modest, so while Barr’s scepticism was understandable, it also happened to be well-founded.
Barr spent three months on the sidelines between April and June, a labral tear in his hip producing chronic pain and making running of any sort impossible for 11 weeks.
“I was in a rut,” he says. “My parents were telling me things were going to get better, that it’s not going to be like this forever.”
In the end, they were right, although when Barr strained an adductor shortly after the European Championships – where he was eliminated in the semi-final after running 50.09 – those close to him worried that in terms of Rio, it could be Games over.
“A week before he left, we weren’t even sure he was going to get on the plane,” says Hayley Harrison, who coaches Barr along with her husband Drew. “As far as training goes, he was a million miles away. It wasn’t about cramming in at that stage; it was about taking out stuff. We couldn’t condition him so had to look at technical stuff.”
Somehow, it worked, and the 24-year-old conjured up three performances in Rio’s Olympic Stadium that bordered on alchemy.
First up was his heat, in which he finished second in a whopping season’s best of 48.93 to advance automatically. That sent a wave of relief washing over Barr, given the amount – financially, emotionally, and just about every other way – his parents, Tommy and Martina, had invested in him.
“We said if we spent all our money going out there and you go out in the first round, we’ll kill ya,” jokes Tommy. “But we got the phone call about two weeks before and he said I’m coming back; everything is starting to click.”
In his semi-final, it all clicked like a sweet 48-second symphony Barr that had been working on for years. He stormed to the front off the last barrier to wallop his own Irish record of 48.65, clocking 48.39.
That was when the national hysteria began back home, the Irish public getting a scent of what has been, in their history, a precious and rare commodity – an Olympic medal in athletics.
For the final, two days later, they gathered around big screens, wedged their way into pubs, clasped their hands at home in hope that their man could deliver.
He did, producing the run of his life to clock 47.97, but the only problem: three others did too. USA’s Kerron Clement took gold in 47.73, Kenya’s Boniface Tumuti silver in 47.78, with Turkey’s Yasmani Copello lunging for the bronze in 47.92, an eye’s blink ahead of Barr.
I'd love to reply to everyone individually but that would eat into valuable 'celebrating' time 🍻🍻. Cheers lads #imstillirishafterall— Thomas Barr (@TomBarr247) August 18, 2016
[To watch Barr's emotional meeting with his parents shortly after his Olympic final, skip 2:30 into this interview with Feidhlim Kelly of Athletics Ireland]
Bom-Barrded by fame
Finishing fourth place is usually the athletics equivalent of checking into heartbreak hotel, but for Barr, it was different. Since he crossed that line, he has rarely stopped smiling.
“When I saw the time I was ecstatic because 47 is ridiculous territory to be in,” he says.
Barr knew there was something of a media frenzy about him back home. He’d seen the articles, cringing at those which dubbed him Ireland’s most eligible bachelor, but only when he flew back a week later did he realise what a cacophony of craziness he created.
There were interviews, tonnes of them, an appearance on Ireland’s most famous talk show, after which he and his family – and yes, even his grandmother – partied the night away as VIP guests at Dublin’s most famous nightclub.
Ever since, there have been multiple requests each day to ask if he could attend this opening, appear at this launch, say a few words at these awards. He spent hours talking to kids at his local club in Waterford, Ferrybank AC, and as for the selfies – the thousands of them – he’s all snapped out.
“When I got back I couldn’t go on a night out without taking about 40 or 50 photos in a nightclub,” he says. “The buzz it generated was insane. I’ve been trying to get used to the fact that people recognise me everywhere.”
At the back of it all, though, Barr is smart enough to know that fame is fleeting, and all those patting him on the back now could just as fast bundle him to the ground if his performances don’t match his profile next year.
Having completed his master’s degree in sports performance at the University of Limerick, he will remain based there for the upcoming year, where life as a full-time athlete beckons for the first time.
After a five-week break, which he says included “plenty of drinking”, he’s back at work and looking to 2017 – and the IAAF World Championships in London – from a very different standing.
All the same, being overly serious about athletics is not for him. His approach has never been to allow it become all-enveloping. In his spare time, Barr likes to visit an abandoned tannery with his friends and engage in the high-octane sport of drifting – a form of motorsport where you slide a modified car sideways around a track.
He also loves wakeboarding, and as serious as 2017 might become, he’s already booked his tickets to start it with a snowboarding trip to the Alps.
It’s the approach that’s worked this far, and as he turns his sights from Rio to London, he hopes it will again.
“London will be as close as we’ll get to a home championships and hopefully after all the momentum that built from last year, we’ll have a big Irish contingent,” he says.
And from this new height – as a 47-second man – he sees no reason to fear his rivals.
“This year made me realise I don’t need to be afraid of these guys,” he says. “I’m at their level.”