Shawn Barber’s Olympic dreams don’t reach back to the cradle, but it’s certainly close.
Barber, whose father also competed in the sport, remembers the pole vault pit he had in a barn on his parents’ Texas property.
“Growing up, we used to have a pole vault pit at our house with a runway and everything … so [my father] would be out there jumping and I would go and jump with him occasionally,” the former University of Akron standout said. “That’s how I kind of got into it at a young age.”
Since then, Barber goals and level of competition has continued to gain altitude. He qualified for the Canadian Olympic team by winning that country’s version of the Olympic trials earlier this month with a record vault of 18-4¾ (5.61 meters).
Competing in the Olympics is just one of the many achievements Barber can add to a list that includes multiple NCAA championships and multiple records. He’s one of three former Zips — along with Clayton Murphy in the 800 meters and Annika Roloff in the pole vault (representing Germany) — who will compete in the Olympics.
It’s still not enough.
Despite qualifying to represent Canada, Barber spent the past couple of weeks competing in Europe against three or four of the world’s best, said his coach Dennis Mitchell, who also coaches the Zips track team. Mitchell said competing in meets offers the physical and mental advantages practicing alone does not.
“What he does is often so intense and so difficult sometimes, it’s good to be in a high level competition,” Mitchell said. “Right now they’re doing the best in the world here. That gives us some good competition. It enables us to know what we can do and it gets us up to a sharp position in performance by the time we get to Rio.”
Given his accomplishments this year, no one can really argue that Barber isn’t or hasn’t been sharp.
There is the Canadian championship, of course, but he’s built his success on chasing personal goals as well. One of them included joining the exclusive “6-meter club,” an unofficial fraternity of pole vaulters to have cleared that height that now numbers 19.
Barber achieved the feat indoors at the Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nev., on Jan. 16. At 21, he’s the youngest ever to do so, according to reports.
“That was what I was aiming at all last year — it was great,” he said. “It was kind of defining point in my career that every pole vaulter dreams of, and to be able to do that was a blessing.”
Barber, who has dual Canadian and U.S. citizenship thanks to his Ontario-born father, now seeks that next defining moment at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He chose to represent Canada because he views his sport as being more linked to that country.
“That’s every pole vaulter’s dream as well to participate in the Olympics. It will be the cornerstone of my athletic career,” Barber said. “And hopefully a good performance there would look good on an athletic resume in a weird way.”
His agent Jeff Hartwig, a former Olympic pole vaulter who retired in his early 40s, said this Olympics is unlikely to be the only one for the young star.
“If I’m jumping high enough, long enough, I could make a lucrative career,” he said. “I’d like to be pole vaulting as long as people want to see me pole vault. “
The key to that longevity is whether he’s enjoying it.
“It’s still fun for me, even when I have the lulls,” Barber said. “I’m paid to travel the world, see sights and jump on sticks — who wouldn’t enjoy that? When you stop having fun in your sport, it becomes a job, and when you make sport a job you end up having a lot of decline in performance because it becomes more stressful.
“You get into a work mindset and that’s just not a good experience. Track and field to me is still paramount and it’s going to be the difference between me jumping into my mid-20s or jumping until I’m in my mid-40s.”