FAYETTEVILLE — Beating the best while less than your best often defines a champion.
It defines this SEC Indoor championship season for Andrew Irwin, now ready to defend his NCAA Indoor championship.
The University of Arkansas sophomore pole vaulter from Mount Ida and the other elite collegians vault at 5:30 p.m. today at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship hosted by the Razorbacks men’s and women’s team at the Randal Tyson Indoor Track.
Coming off winning the 2011 World Junior age-group championship in Barcelona while still living in Mount Ida, Irwin in 2012 as a freshman vaulted over the college ranks unsurpassed. He missed few bars, setting a Razorbacks indoor record then breaking it twice while first winning the SEC Indoor title and then, clearing 18-2 1/2, the NCAA Indoor Championship.
Irwin won the SEC Outdoor at a mind-boggling 18-9 1/4.
Then adversity struck. At the NCAA Outdoor Qualifying meet his timing got off, and he somehow knocked the bar down three times on his second height even as he seemed well over it. So Irwin had to sit home while the Razorbacks competed at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Determined to erase the one bad 2012 memory going into 2013, Irwin at his first indoor meet in January “tweaked” his hamstring.
It may have been a “tweak” in severity but a major interruption to training and competition.
“The hamstring set me back a lot more than I thought it would,” Irwin said.
It wasn’t until clearing 17-9 on Feb. 9 still running on a deferring to the hamstring short approach that Irwin achieved a presumable NCAA Indoor qualifying mark.
He didn’t run from his full 16 steps approach until the Feb. 24 SEC Indoor Championships. It did not run smoothly.
“It was a long stressful day,” Irwin said.
Tennessee vaulter Jake Blankenship kept sailing over bars unscathed while Irwin kept knocking them down before clearing on the second or third try.
Blankenship had the meet won on fewer misses until missing three times at 18-2 1/2. Irwin cleared 18-2 1/2 on his second attempt to win the meet then put a UA indoor record 18-4 1/2 frosting on the victory cake of his “long, stressful day.”
“I was very pleased that while I didn’t jump well, I jumped a very good bar,” Irwin said.
The experience ought to toughen him for competition surely to be above last year.
“Last year was a really good year and everything went fairly smoothly,” Irwin said. “This having to battle and hang in there and do whatever I had to do to get that bar to stay in the competition, it was rough but I ended up winning.”
He returns a champion but a champion looking up. Jack Whitt of Oral Roberts University has cleared 18-7 3/4 and a flock of high-flyers have cleared 18 feet.
“Andrew is in a different place than he was last year,” Arkansas men’s vault coach Doug Case said. “Coming into the National meet he is not the national leader. He is not the favorite going into the meet even though in my opinion he is the best vaulter out there. He struggled a little bit this year, but I think he’s ready to jump higher than last year. He already has jumped higher than last year and he still has not really peaked. I think he’s ready to jump really high.”
With this competition, Irwin knows he must vault high just to place.
“Last year I won it with 18-2 1/2,” Irwin said. “We have the top five over that bar right now before the meet.”
If home inspires heights, Irwin will attain them. Those who coached him before Case, Andrew’s father, Steve Irwin, his sister Stephanie, the former two-time All-American Lady Razorbacks pole vaulter, and Morry Sanders, the nationally renowned pole vault guru from Lake Hamilton, all will be at Randal Tyson tonight.
“It’s going to be great,” Irwin said of vaulting at home with the Razorbacks ranked No. 1 going into this two-day quest for the national championship. “I came up here one year when Steph was in school and they had Nationals. This place was rocking. It’s going to be packed.”