When he was five years old, Shawn Barber used a pole to launch his tiny torso across a narrow creek on his family’s farm in New Mexico. Not long after that, he began pitching himself over a pit that his father, a pole vaulter, had built years earlier. Then he started vaulting over gymnastics equipment in the converted airplane hangar where George Barber did his training.
“I ran around with a pole getting into trouble and trying to jump over things,” Shawn says. “I did pretty much whatever you would expect a kid with an imagination to do.”
Now 22 and the world pole-vaulting champion, Shawn Barber is on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream. The stress fractures and broken bones he has incurred in his feet are a distant memory. Barring a mishap at this weekend’s Canadian track and field championships, the dual citizen should be headed for Rio de Janeiro.
“When it comes to pole-vaulting, I try to keep the same mentality I had as a kid,” he said, seated in the lobby of his hotel in Edmonton days ahead of Canada’s Olympic trials. “I want to go out and play and have fun.
“It is still a childhood fancy.”
Barber’s final is Saturday afternoon.
The greatest pole vaulter in Canadian history, Shawn was primarily coached by his father until last November, when George Barber was banned by Athletics Canada. It was then that the governing agency for track and field discovered he was convicted in 2007 of having sex with a 17-year-old female student when he was a high school coach in the United States. Dennis Mitchell of the University of Akron, under whom Shawn won back-to-back NCAA championships before turning professional last fall, has taken over as his personal coach. George still joins his son at events, and serves as an unofficial adviser.
“It is business as usual,” Shawn said.
Born in Ontario, George moved with his family when his father, a decorated member of the U.S. Armed Forces, was posted at an Army base in El Paso, Tex. George later received a track and field scholarship to the University of Texas El Paso, and then moved to Las Cruces, N.M., with Shawn’s mother. Shawn was born there and at age 8 began to accompany his dad to pole-vaulting competitions. By the end of fifth grade, he had already vaulted 10 1/2 feet and was competing against high school students and adults.
He would generally try to vault a height that was equal to his age, and worked to improve by one foot each year.
“He has fallen off the pace a bit,” George Barber said, joking.
In January, at an event in Nevada, Shawn set a Canadian record by clearing a bar set six metres, or 19.6 feet, above the ground. In doing so, he became only the 19th person to fly so high, and is now seen as a serious threat to reach the podium at the Summer Games. Sprinter Andre De Grasse, middle-distance runner Melissa Bishop, and high-jumper Derek Drouin are among the other medal-contenders trying to clinch spots this weekend on the Olympic team.
“I look back at the [record] jump and can remember every detail,” Barber says. “It is one of those things you replay in your head over and over. It only took a second, but it seemed like it lasted a minute.
“It was a great moment.”
Barber said he had made attempts at six metres 10 times without success over the previous year.
“I was within a couple centimetres of it,” he said. “There were a few times where I went over the bar, but then brushed it on my way down.”
In ancient times, the Greeks propelled themselves with poles to scale enemies’ walls, but didn’t handicap themselves by placing a flimsy bar on top. Poles made out of heavy, rigid hardwood were used in the mid-1800s when the sport we know today was founded, and today’s athletes are soaring to new heights while wielding flexible poles fashioned from carbon fibre.
At the start, a vaulter sprints down a track clutching a five-metre-long pole, and then plants it in the ground as a means of being propelled through the air. The world record is 6.16 metres, set in February, 2014 by Renaud Lavillenie of France. The gold-medal winner at the 2012 Olympics, he finished third in Beijing in 2015 when Barber captured the world championship. It was Canada’s first world title in track and field in a dozen years, and its first pole-vault medal of any kind at the world championships.
Before Barber, the last Canadian pole vaulter of note was Bruce Simpson, who finished fifth at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.
“What I like about pole vaulting is that it encompasses a little bit of everything, and you are never at a point where you have done all you can do,” Shawn Barber said. “The more you know, the more you know how little you really know.”
Barber has no expectations for Rio, but has moved past his world championship and Canadian record.
“If you live in that moment, you have no reason to push forward,” he said. “You celebrate when you achieve something, but then you come down from that high, and get to take the next step.”