They cheered when he arrived on the track; they cheered when he was introduced to the stadium; they cheered when he took his position on the blocks; they screamed as he mounted a late, late challenge for a medal; they had their hands on their heads as he crossed the line; and they cheered when he ended up agonisingly close, the dip of a head away from that coveted place on the Olympic podium.
“I’m so happy,” said Thomas Barr’s emotion-filled sister Becky in The Cove bar in Waterford city, where she and other family members along with friends, team-mates from Ferrybank AC and many others willed the 24-year-old on as he broke the 400m hurdle national record once again, but just fell short of a medal.
“He’s going to be a little bit sickened but he put in the race of his life. He couldn’t do any more, literally. I’m so happy for him,” said Becky as her other Olympian sibling, Jessie, appeared on the TV screens in her role as analyst.
Thomas’s parents Martina and Tommy are in Rio where they’ve been witnessing their son’s history-making performances.
“Our hero,” was the shout from one of the 200-odd supporters who packed into the Cove, a dozen kilometres from the Barrs’ home village of Dunmore East, as Thomas gave a gracious, dignified interview to RTÉ in Rio seconds after this thrilling final.
Bríd Golden of Ferrybank AC coached Thomas from when he first joined the club at 10 years of age, along with her husband Alan, and said she was “thrilled” by her protege’s performance: “Fourth place in an Olympic Games is outstanding. It’s an absolute sensation, to be honest.”
He was “so, so close” to a medal all the same - a point echoed by Mary Ashe, the cathaoirleach of the Munster Schools Athletics board: “He’ll be back.”
Also present to watch on the television screens were Thomas’s aunt and uncle Jackie and Jim French, cousin Isobella, grandmother Breda French, and many friends and colleagues who trained alongside him over the years during his odyssey from fun-loving, smiling, laid-back teenager - “a gangly, skinny kid” as 800m international Niall Tuohy put it - to Olympic finalist and fourth-best in the world, just hundredths of a second behind Yasmani Copello from Turkey who took the bronze.
The cheering was constant once the starter’s gun was fired, and reached near-deafening proportions as the field rounded that final bend and Thomas went from a hopeless-looking sixth to a fast-finishing fourth, staying on like a Grand National horse.
“If there was another yard he’d have done it,” as more than one onlooker said.
While an element of disappointment was there afterwards, the main feeling in Waterford was one of pride, in one of their own who shone on the world stage and provided an all-too-rare ray of light in an often gloomy Olympics for Ireland.
“We’re so proud of him, if he never got any further than this it wouldn’t make a difference,” Ferrybank treasurer Linda Kiely said. “It’s just phenomenal.”
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