TORONTO – Shawn Barber’s first day back on home soil as a professional athlete didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned.
The newly crowned world pole vault champion’s trip home from Europe took three flights. The luggage — including his world gold medal — had yet to arrive. And he still hadn’t managed to secure a hotel room thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Barber and his dad George sat guzzling coffee at a downtown cafe Wednesday morning in the same clothes they’d been wearing for nearly two days — Shawn in a red Canada jacket, George in a black version of the same one. Shawn talked about the whirlwind past couple of weeks.
“Absolutely (crazy). I’ve worked more since the summer started than I have all year of being in the NCAAs,” Barber said of the added demands of meeting with the media and sponsors.
“It’s a lot more difficult than some people give it credit for. I don’t want to say it’s work, because it’s all very enjoyable for me, but it is a lot of early mornings and late nights.”
The 21-year-old won gold at the world championships last month in Beijing — Canada’s first-ever world pole vault medal, and first gold since Perdita Felicien’s hurdles victory in 2003.
A couple of days later, he turned pro by signing a deal with Nike, opting to forgo his final NCAA season at the University of Akron. He’ll continue to train and take classes at Akron.
“For me it was pretty clear, a pretty easy choice after winning world championships,” said Barber, who won one NCAA outdoor title, and two indoor titles. “I think that my best bet for good competition and quality meets next year is to go pro and to expose myself to those larger meets.
“I think that I’ve done just about everything I want to do in the NCAA, and I’m very happy with my years there, and I think I’m just ready for a new chapter.”
His decision was the opposite of Andre De Grasse, who will compete for the USC Trojans in his senior NCAA season. The young sprint star won bronze in the 100 metres in Beijing, and then turned down the chance to sign lucrative endorsement deals — including a multi-year shoe deal worth up to seven figures — to remain with USC.
Barber’s contract, which like any shoe deal is merit-based and so on a sliding scale, would be significantly less than what De Grasse stood to earn. The 100 metres is track and field’s marquee event.
De Grasse is relatively new to track and field, and said he feels he has a great deal still to learn. Barber, on the other hand, has competed since he was a young boy.
Barber also said his decision to go pro, and the ability to focus on higher-level meets such as the Diamond League circuit, sets him up better for next summer’s Olympics.
“I won’t be required to do some of the lower meets that are just kind of brutal on your body,” Barber said. “That being said, I think as long as (De Grasse) doesn’t try to change a lot of things going into Rio, he will still be very successful next year and hopefully I’m going to try to do the same thing.
“That’s the main reason I’m going back to Akron, to continue studying, and to continue working with the same coaching program, and to continue doing everything as close to the same as I can. . .”
Barber’s coaches are his dad — a former vaulter who introduced Shawn to the sport when he was just four — and Akron’s Dennis Mitchell.
The six-foot-three red head grew up in New Mexico but lists Toronto as his hometown. He holds dual citizenship and competes for Canada largely because of his father, who’s from Kincardine, Ont.
He admitted it was a bit strange watching the Maple Leaf go up to the playing of “O Canada” on the podium in Beijing.
“It is a very unique experience, and I feel very fortunate to be able to experience it, and I think it’s very humbling because you’re just one person in an enormous country of people and you have the ability to represent that whole country on an international stage,” he said.
“To be able to do it well enough to say ‘Hey Canada is doing this’ to every other country in the world I think is the most special thing in the world.”
Barber closed out his competitive season in Europe and only arrived back in North America early Wednesday morning. Neither he nor his dad had seen any press clippings from the worlds, and so were unaware of the interest the victory generated back home.
“That’s very cool,” Barber said. “Hopefully that’s going to drive me to compete better knowing that people are looking for me for inspiration, and if I can encourage people to get into the sport by my performances, I think that’s the most special thing that anybody can ask for, so I’m definitely going to try my best to go out and perform for them.”
Barber planned to take a few weeks off vaulting. Asked what he does when he’s not training or studying, he said laughing: “I don’t remember. It’s been so long since I’ve done anything else.”
He’s into beach volleyball, he added. There are several beach volleyball courts on campus.
“I’ve hurt myself more times doing that than pole vault I think.”