Shock wasn’t the right word, nor could you say it was a huge surprise, so if anything Thomas Barr’s bronze medal at last night’s European Championships proved a delightful deliverance on his talent, an ode to his outstanding ability at the event they call the man-killer.
In the 84 years of the European Championships, never had an Irishman won a medal in a sprint event, but then along came Barr, ebullient, energetic, fearless, frenetic.
Before the 400m hurdles final last night Barr had walked into Berlin’s cavernous Olympic Stadium displaying the child-like giddiness that hadn’t been observed since he toed the line in Rio two years ago.
It was the smile of an athlete entirely at ease with his environment, and by now we’ve come to know he feels most at home on the grandest stages.
“If I had to I’d pull out of every other race to be at my best for world [championships] or Olympics,” he said.
Barr came into the race with a season’s best of 48.99, and he was aware that even a repeat of that would land him towards the rear in such an outstanding field. Drawn in lane eight, he knew he had to go out hard, to speed like a scalded cat through the opening half-lap as world champion Karsten Warholm came bearing down on him.
Off the last bend, Barr still had a metre to find on France’s Ludvy Vaillant, who held third behind Warholm and Olympic bronze medallist Yasmani Copello of Turkey.
After missing his rehearsed stride pattern between the last two barriers — taking 15 steps instead of the planned 14 — Barr reached for the last with the desperate yearning of a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, knowing a big one was needed if he was to hoist himself up into medal position.
In the end, he didn’t, and over the final 50m Barr forged his way past the Frenchman and forced himself onto the podium. It was the first major championship medal of Barr’s career, the first ever by an Irishman in a sprint event at the European Championships, now 84 years old.
Warholm took gold with a lightning-quick 47.64 and Copello the silver in 47.81, while Barr’s 48.31 was the second-fastest time of his career, behind only the 47.97 he ran to finish fourth in the Olympics.
Barr was quick to pay tribute to coaches Hayley and Drew Harrison, who guide his career with such an expert hand at the University of Limerick. They had told him time and again that despite his ho-hum form this summer, things would click when it counted.
“I always have faith in their programme, whether I’m injured or healthy they get me into the shape I’ve needed,” he said. “I’m just so thankful to all those who have helped make this happen.”
If two dots make a trend, then the line between Rio and Berlin depicts Barr as a rare athlete in the annals of Irish athletics, one who gets on the line at a championships and instead of crumbling in the presence of pressure, elevates to a new level.
“I really can’t believe it,” he said. “I knew it was going to take a 48-low to get near the medals, and it came together at just the right time.”
History in his pocket. His to keep — forever.
Contrasting fortunes, however, for Leon Reid, who could only watch as his medal chance evaporated into the night sky in the men’s 200m final.
Drawn on the outside like Barr, Reid charged around the bend and turned for home in medal contention but had nothing left to give approaching the finish, fading to seventh in 20.37. The race was won by Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev in 19.76.
“That just wasn’t good enough,” said the 23-year-old. “I tried to hit the bend, and they must have just piggy-backed off me. I just couldn’t get anything back on the straight. But with Worlds next year, we’re just going to continue to grow as a team.”
Elsewhere there was no joy for Mark English, who was knocked out of the 800m yesterday after finishing sixth in his heat in 1:48.98.
“It just didn’t click out there for me today and I couldn’t get into a rhythm, but I want to get back in an Irish singlet and get back into finals,” said English, who struggled to find form after injury setbacks during the summer.
Zak Curran fared no better in his heat, trailing home seventh in 1:49.31.