With “Yoda” by his side, Shawn Barber will be pole vaulting on Friday in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for a berth on the Canadian Olympic Track and Field team that will compete in the upcoming London Olympics.
The recent graduate of Kingwood Park (Kingwood, Texas) has cleared a 2012 USA national-best 17 feet, 9 inches, which makes him the No. 2 seed behind one older vaulter who has gone over 18 feet. He has been “grandfathered” into the Canadian program because his father, George “Yoda” Barber, is a native of Canada and was its national pole vault champion in 1983. His career-best height was 17-10 3/4.
George Barber has been nicknamed in honor of the Star Wars character due to his wisdom and knowledge of the event and the ability to coach his son to great heights. He coached high school and college track for 20 years. In fact, he still vaults and at age 51 recently cleared 14 feet in the sanctioned San Marcos (Texas) River Vault – the same day that Shawn leaped his career-best 17-9. That added one inch to his season-long national No. 1 height of 17-8.
Shawn told MaxPreps that having his father beside him at every meet “makes a world of difference. Some coaches are similar, but the attitude he has makes it a lot easier to get along. I’m definitely going to keep this father-son relationship going (in the future).”
George, who is 5-11, describes his 6-foot-2, 170-pound son as “basically a mini-me, but taller, stronger and faster. He is tenacious and has got a very good mind as far as bio-mechanics. He figures out how they (other vaulters) are doing it and how he can improve on it. He is pretty much a natural.”
Shawn definitely is very athletic because he can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and bench press more than 200 pounds. His mother, Ann, recalled how intense he was, even as a young boy.
“He has been pretty persistent,” she said. “When he finds something he likes, he will just do it over and over until he gets it down.”
Growing up, Shawn was provided with his own vaulting pit in an airplane-hangar-like building at home. He took to the sport quickly at around age 6. On many days he and his friends were vaulting along with his dad. He also had a trampoline, ropes and a tumbling mat which added to his growing strength and agility.
By the end of fifth grade, Shawn already had vaulted 10-6. He also played soccer for six years, but finally had to give it up due to the wear and tear on his ankles and knees.
Due to a bad experience as an eighth grader, he did not participate in track as a freshman, instead choosing to play soccer and launch a four-year career as a diver for the swimming team. He returned to track as a sophomore when his father (his parents were divorced) moved from New Mexico to be close to him in Houston.
“I was fed up,” he said of dropping track. “I guess the year’s break helped out. It was a much easier transition when dad came over and helped.”
Kingwood Park coach Chris Elliott was pleased to see the youngster come back to track as a sophomore.
“We knew he was very talented,” Elliott said. “He hurt his hamstring at the regional. He still placed fifth at the state (Class 4A) at 14 feet. He’s got a very, very high pain threshold. He can kind of turn the pain off and do what he has to do.”
That summer he began to make an impact on a national stage when he cleared 14-6 to place second during the AAU National Junior Olympics on Norfolk, Va.
Shawn raised the bar considerably as a junior. Even though the injury bugaboo struck him again (fractured left foot at the regional preview meet), he cleared what was then a school-record 15-9 to place second in the state, and showed once again that he has a high tolerance for pain.
That summer he obliterated his own school record by clearing 16-10 during the Adios to Summer meet in Austin, Texas. However, his biggest victory was at 16-6, the winning height during the AAU National Championships in New Orleans.
Shawn’s senior year, of course, has been off the charts. He vaulted 17-6 1/2 during the Texas A&M Classic, which was one-half inch short of being the top indoor effort in the country.
“I was waiting for it,” he said of his big day. “It was a long time in the works. I had two PRs in a row (he first cleared an even 17 feet). That’s kind of how I do it. I jump the same for awhile, then I PR by a foot.”
His vaulting career, at this point, was interrupted – or, perhaps, enhanced – by his diving career.
Swim coach Greg McLain noted, “One thing that impressed me was his body control. He was able to fix something in flight. He made adjustments on the fly and very quickly. A lot of coaching Shawn was giving him a couple guidelines and letting him get on the board and figure it out. He was wonderful to our younger divers. He was a mentor to them. For the future of our team that was really cool.”
Shawn climaxed his four-year career – the last two as the Panthers’ No. 1 diver – by becoming his school’s first state qualifier and finishing seventh. He was rewarded with a first-team All-State selection.
Back to track, all he did was set another personal record with a 17-8 vault in his first outdoor meet, the Barber’s Hill Invitational in Mount Belview, Texas. That effort stood up as No. 1 in the nation for much of the year.
Elliott admitted, “We were pretty shocked. He was kind of joking around. You could see it on his face. He was having fun and he just took off.”
Despite his superb effort, Shawn admitted to some frustration because he tried 18-2 and twice knocked the bar off with his chest – on the way down.
At the end of March he won the Texas Relays by clearing 17-6 1/2. That effort brought him a request from Miss Teen Austin to have a photograph taken of them together.
These scenes are becoming more and more common, causing him to quip, “It sure beats going to them (girls) and asking them for pictures,”
Though he won his first state title, his height of 16 feet provided even more frustration. He called it “an off day. I took just two jumps to win it. They moved the bar to 17-6 and I missed all three jumps. They were sloppy. I was happy to get it over with.”
He never made an excuse, but he had a legitimate one, because for the third year in a row, he was hurt before the state meet. This time it was a hip injury and was not related to sports.
Elliott noted, “After the district meet he only vaulted on the day of the meet. He mainly lived in the training room. Our trainers did an amazing job. One of the things he’s been able to show is mental toughness. He is a tough, tough kid and very down to earth. He’s an intelligent kid and you can tell the wheels are spinning when he vaults.”
Shawn said, “Injuries hold everybody back to an extent. It could have been worse. There was some pain, but I don’t try to get hurt.”
The Barber family will go to great lengths – and distances – to find top competition.
Already this summer, Shawn has won the Great Southwest Classic in Albuquerque, N.M., with a leap of 17-5 1/2. Then he and his father drove 2,800 miles in just a few days so he could compete in two other major events. He placed sixth during the USATF Junior World Qualifier in Bloomington, Ind., at 16-4 3/4, then the very next day won the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., by clearing 16-4.
“You learn to sleep in crazy positions,” Shawn said of his long car rides. “It’s not so much that you’re even tired. You’re just worn out. I just couldn’t find the right pole, or the right rhythm to get over the higher bars.”
Shawn, who carried a 3.67 GPA, has chosen the University of Akron, which has one of the nation’s finest indoor facilities. He probably will study mechanical engineering.
Before he enters college, however, he revealed, “I’d like to do 19 feet this summer. I’d like to get it out of the way early and get one step closer (to the world record).”
George Barber gets the last word.
He recalled, “When he was a little kid, my expectations were that he was going to jump over 18 feet before he got out of high school. He’s getting there. He’s got a lot of things to fix and he knows what they are. I’ve seen him go over 18 feet, but he didn’t know it (it was not measured). On the right day, the right conditions and right pole, he’ll jump high – between 18-8 and well over 20 feet.”
By Dave Krider