The planning started from his sick bed. It was August 2017, and Thomas Barr was lying in his hotel room in London, his World Championships brought to a grinding halt by gastroenteritis, which had reduced a world-class athlete to a sweating, vomiting wreck on the most important day of his year.
The previous night, Barr had secured his place in the world semi-final but after the bug went to war with his insides overnight, all he could do was lie in bed, cocooned in quarantine, watching his name flash up on screen ahead of the 400m hurdles semi-final, the sight of that empty lane the most sickening thing of all.
But it was then that his coaches, Hayley and Drew Harrison, started to plot out Barr’s next 12 months, the path to today’s European semi-final in Berlin.
Just getting him to the start line is our job and then it’s over to him,” says Hayley. “He’s got a great championship mentality.
Barr is ranked joint-fifth on season’s bests in the 400m hurdles, over a second down on Norway’s Karsten Warholm, the world champion, and more than half a second off Turkey’s Yasmani Copello, who beat Barr to an Olympic medal in Rio.
If races were run to form, both the gold and silver medals would be out of reach, but since Rio, Barr has known not to set a ceiling on his potential.
I do often look back myself and think, ‘God, what did I do that year?’” he says. “The other day I was thinking, ‘what did I run in the semi-final, what did I run in the heats?’ and [this year] I’m there or thereabouts.
That 2016 season was as puzzling as it was precocious, an almost accidental masterpiece where his form came together in the final days before the Games. Barr missed 11 weeks of training with a hip impingement in the spring, faltered his way through a sub-par summer then travelled to Rio in danger of being a championship tourist.
But in his final few workouts things clicked and Barr finished second in his heat in 48.93, won his semi-final in 48.39 before smashing his Irish record in the final, finishing fourth in 47.97, just 0.05 outside the medals.
He hasn’t been setting the world alight since — his best of 48.99 over a second off that Rio run — but what fills him with confidence ahead of this evening’s semi-final is how things are falling into place once again.
If you compared this year [to 2016] I’m ahead of where I was because in the lead-up to Rio I wasn’t running these sort of times in training or on the track.
Barr smashed his personal best for 200m at the Cork City Sports last month, clocking 21.16, and he set a championship record of 49.56 to win his eighth straight national title in Santry in his last race before Berlin.
“This is the fastest I’ve been, the problem I’m having at the moment is putting that speed into the hurdles. I know I can go out there and run a 48 in the semi-finals and in the final it’s a matter of letting the adrenaline and instincts take over and just unleash the bat out of hell.”
He will have to finish in the first two to automatically advance to Thursday’s final, and from there he knows he won’t enjoy the luxury of running without expectation.
“There’s always that bit of pressure, especially now as there’s been this talk of me being a medal contender. A senior championship medal does not come around easily, and if it happens it happens, but it’ll be very, very hard-fought.”
Elsewhere Phil Healy made it a decent first day for the Irish yesterday by advancing to the 100m semi-finals, the 23-year-old clocking 11.44 to finish second in her heat. “I think there’s definitely more there, today was a blowout to get rid of nerves,” said the Bandon speedster.
“I’m looking forward to getting out there again.” Gina Akpe-Moses narrowly missed out after finishing fifth in her 100m heat in 11.63, while there was no joy for Ireland’s sole field eventer, Adam McMullen, who bowed out in long jump qualification with a best of 7.47m.