James Russell Lowell – 19th century American maverick poet and political activist, who overcame his Harvard education to found The Atlantic Monthly and to serve as ambassador to Spain – once observed, “Fate Loves The Fearless.” It is most unlikely that he was speaking about pole vaulting – but he might as well have been.
If you have ever paid close attention to these vertical leapers, you know how unintentionally appropriate Lowell’s quotation is to their unique event. Pole vaulters – the ones who are successful – are armed with an unshakable – almost unreasonable – sense of courage. Unfazed as the competition gets tense and that bar goes higher, they bring only supreme confidence to their next attempt. To paraphrase Will Rodgers, the best vaulters never met a bar they didn’t think they could make.
The next generation of these high-flying, track & field daredevils may be led by Shawn Barber. Barber – born and raised in Texas, but possessing dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship – has followed a curious pathway from the Lone Star State that finds him now as a stand-out pole vaulter at the University of Akron.
Barber grew up in Kingwood, Texas – just north of Houston. “I started vaulting as a little guy,” smiles Barber, whose father was an exceptional pole vaulter at UTEP in the early 1980’s. George Barber – the 1983 Canadian national pole vault champion – was able to nurture his son’s early vault interest at accessible neighborhood facilities offered by an accommodating Houston family. “The Arnold family was just a local family that was really passionate about the pole vault,” explains the Zip vaulter. “They had all of the facilities there.”
This energetic young Texan possessed a restless and reckless streak. “I used to do cliff-diving, jump off trees, weird stuff all through middle school and high school,” confesses Barber. “Probably most harmful, we had arches for the top of our house. I’d climb up there and jump off those with my brother.” Little did he know that his fearlessness would serve him well in the sport that would consume his attention.
As Shawn entered Kingwood Park High School, he struggled to find the right coaching assistance to harness and direct his own emerging vault passion. “There was coaching there. Their job was to make you better, to make you peak at the right times. They definitely helped and they got you on the right path,” Barber offers. “But you definitely need some sort of outside influence if you’re going to really be an elite pole vaulter.”
Shawn ultimately realized he had that “something extra” all along. It was his father. Yet just like other multi-faceted coaching arrangements – such as the husband-wife duos of Bobby Kersee and Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Rick Suhr and Jenn Suhr – the father-son tandem of George and Shawn Barber soon learned they had to focus on developing that special understanding that would allow the father-son relationship to take on a coach-athlete dimension. “It helped to have an understanding like that. You have your work time and your play time,” explains Barber. “He wasn’t easy on me. He didn’t give me any special breaks because I was his kid.”
After an unsettled high school beginning – “I didn’t even jump in 9th grade” – Barber’s high school vault progression really began to take off. “In 10th grade, I jumped 11’1″ in my first meet,” he outlines. “But I ended up about 14’6′ at the end of the year.” More robust development followed. “In 11th grade, I jumped 16’6″. Then in my senior year, I jumped 18 feet plus.”
Barber continued his hot streak on into the summer of 2012. Last June, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Barber captured the New Balance Outdoor National High School pole vault championship with a leap of 16′ 4″ [4.98m]. After finishing fourth at the Canadian Olympic Trials, the young vaulter qualified for the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. In Spain, Barber jumped 18’2½” [5.55m] – as did the winner – but more misses relegated Barber to the bronze medal position. Saving the best for last, Barber then returned to Texas to clear 18’3½” [5.57] – the best United States high school vault of all time, bettering the 2003 mark of 18’3″ [5.56m] set by Tommy Skipper.
Barber headed off to college with a charted high school pole vault progression which suggested mind-boggling upside vault potential. The University of Akron won the Barber Sweepstakes – outgunning several of the national track & field powers, including pole vault incubator Tennessee. Fate – teaming up with Barber’s fearlessness – played a role here as the Zip’s head track & field coach – former national class vaulter Dennis Mitchell who battled George Barber for Western Athletic Conference vault titles in the early 1980’s – had a recruiting edge that helped the Zips win the prize. These two former collegiate rivals – Coach Mitchell and Barber’s father – now collaborate to guide Barber’s fortunes.
Only in his 4th year of focused pole vault development, Barber is still learning the subtleties of the event. Unlike the horizontal jumps and throws, the pole vault requires patience and strategy as the bar goes higher and competitors mete out their energy – saving their best for what they hope will be that magnificent final jump to capture the win. “I think it [the chess-like strategy as the bar goes higher] is what makes it more of a technical sport because it’s not just that brute force coming out every day,” notes Barber. “You have to put your hours in to really understand it. It’s what separates the really experienced vaulters from the less-experienced vaulters.” Coach Mitchell sees Barber’s straight-forward jumping style as an advantage here. “Shawn tends to be more of what I like to call a repetition vaulter. Usually, he likes to take a lot of jumps,” explains the Zips coach. “Some vaulters try to conserve and only take few jumps – passing a lot of bars. Shawn tends to be the type that clears a lot of bars. He tends to get better as he goes. He doesn’t mind taking a lot of bars.”
And Barber is also becoming more adept at transforming off-kilter vaults – that can often spell disaster for the less-adroit jumpers – into successful clearances. Like Jenn Suhr and other top performers, the freshman has learned how to “manipulate” a faulty vault in real time – to make lemonade out of a lemon. “I started out with all of my jumps being train wrecks. As you get older and as you more spend time on it, you can make those last minute changes. You have ‘steering’ – as I like to call it – that helps you stay on track to getting a good jump in.”
With these technical nuances enhancing Barber’s profound natural ability and fearless approach, even better results were only a matter of time. Earlier in this outdoor season, Barber cleared 18′ 8¾” [5.71m] to set a new Canadian national pole vault record. That record clearance also gives him the all-important “A” standard for this year’s upcoming IAAF World Outdoor Championships in Moscow in August.
With a qualifying jump of 17′ 2½” [5.25m] at the Eastern Regionals, the Zip freshman will be competing as one of the favorites at this week’s NCAA Championships in Eugene. From there, he’ll head off to Moncton, Canada to battle for one of the coveted pole vault spots on the Canadian national team that will compete in Moscow.
A vaulter who has improved from 11″1″ to 18′ 8¾” in just 4 years needs to be asked this: How high can you jump? “I’m trying to hold on and see, you know?” adds Barber with a laugh. “I get myself healthy and I get myself on the right track and we’ll be jumping high in no time. My body has a little ways to go before I’m peaking here. I’m looking to jumping higher, that’s for sure.”
The University of Akron Zip – whose nickname really should be “The Barber of Z-Ville” – faces a future that is bright indeed. The wry freshman has all the tools: height – “I think I’m about 6’3″ – on a really good day,” he quips – speed, and a confident, courageous approach to an event where reckless abandon is required. Questioned why he – like so many other elite vaulters – risk serious injury by shunning helmets in an event where athletes twist themselves upside down, dangling above hard-surfaced runways 20 feet below, Akron’s pole vault star says, “We practice a lot and have confidence in our skills and in what we are doing. You have to trust your preparation and know you can handle any situation.” And with a sly smile, the Canadian national record holder adds, “Besides, then I wouldn’t be fearless.”