Shawn Barber was vaulting before he could ride a bike, his father, George, fashioning a pole out of an old crossbar so his young son could leap holes and ditches around their Las Cruces, N.M., alfalfa farm.
Soon Shawn and his older brother David were reaching new heights in what was supposed to be an Air Force airplane hangar. George bought the parts on pallets when the order was canceled and erected the ultimate fun house, complete with a trampoline, rings, a high bar, a pole vault runway and pit. Also storing tractors and hay, the Quonset-style building was a work in progress, the ends of the arches not enclosed at first.
“We’d get some tailwinds coming through there sometimes,” Shawn said.
When his parents divorced and he moved to the Houston area to start middle school, Shawn put pole vaulting aside for a while, unable to find the right instructor to replace George. Shawn tried soccer and diving, finishing seventh in the state in the latter while at Kingwood Park (Texas) High School after George arrived and began serving as the volunteer diving coach.
But pole vaulting is the bond Shawn shares with George, who competed in college for the University of Texas-El Paso and won the Canadian national championship in 1983. Nicknamed “Yoda” for his expertise and 20 years experience coaching in high school and college, including at New Mexico State, George let Shawn tag along to meets as he worked with other athletes.
Now, thanks to George’s contacts, the University of Akron has a potential Olympian in its midst.
Zips track and field coach Dennis Mitchell competed in the pole vault against George in the 1980s when Mitchell attended Utah and Barber was at UTEP. As George sought a college for Shawn, George still wanted input and said he and Mitchell have “open communication.” George also liked UA’s Stile Athletics Field House and the school’s strong academic programs.
Ready to go after the superstars of pole vaulting to take UA’s strong program to the next level, Mitchell still had to recruit Shawn. Mitchell said George was predicting Shawn “was going to break all these records” as Mitchell fended off schools in California, Oklahoma and Tennessee for the nation’s No. 2 prospect, according to Track and Field News.
Shawn nearly qualified for the London Olympics as a member of the Canadian team, his father unfazed because he said they only went to the trials for fun. Shawn and his father have dual citizenship in the United States and Canada.
Then in August, Shawn set the national high school record at the AAU Junior Olympics in Houston. His vault of 18 feet, 3½ inches (557.5 centimeters) obliterated the 13-year-old old standard of 17-01.
Shawn has now gone higher than 18 feet five times, most recently at his first college meet a week ago at the Eastern Michigan Triangular. There Barber, a freshman, set the UA record with 18-4½, passing by two inches the previous mark first established by five-time All-American John Russell in 2006. Barber’s jump is believed to be the seventh-best dual meet jump in NCAA history and is 3¾ inches better than any Division I pole vaulter this year.
The Zips host a dual meet with Kent State tonight, with field events beginning at 6:30 and running events at 7:15.
“He’s a very, very special kid. He’s really the best 18-year-old in the world,” Mitchell said of Shawn after practice earlier this month.
But to George, this is just the beginning. George said on one of Shawn’s 18-foot jumps, he did only 4½ of 10 things right.
“Whenever I’m talking to Shawn, I tell him, ‘We don’t want to just be running around the bottom of the mountain, we want to be moving up toward the top,’ ” George said by phone from New Caney, Texas. “Shawn is nowhere near the top of the mountain. We’re about two-thirds of the way up.
“The main thing we focus on is him having fun and making it look as graceful and effortless as possible. The numbers are going to take care of themselves.”
Shawn doesn’t listen to the accolades. He sticks to the mantra his father taught him as a youngster, that having fun is most important. He insists he doesn’t obsess over numbers.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re in the wrong business,” Shawn said after practice at the field house earlier this month.
Admitting he likes jumping on his own so he doesn’t have to wait in line, Shawn even keeps his Olympic goals to himself.
“Me and my dad have a thing; you can have goals, but don’t set limits for yourself,” Shawn said. “I’m not looking four years from now to get on a team. I’m looking for the next 10 years to keep pushing myself in the pole vault and see how far I can go.”
Those unspoken aspirations might not have been possible if George and Ann Barber hadn’t indulged their young son.
“We had some go-karts when he was young. I’d ride horses and he’d ride his little dirt bike, we’d go out in the desert,” Ann Barber said by phone from the Houston area this week.
But Shawn said there were more dangerous days.
“I used to do cliff diving, jump off trees, weird stuff all through middle school and high school,” he said. “Probably the most harmful, we had arches for the top of our house in New Mexico. I’d climb up there and jump off those with my brother. Pointless stuff.
“I can look back at that and think ankle problems could be a result. Also soccer, all through elementary, middle school and part of high school, that really tore up my knees and ankles. Pole vault seems to be the safest sport somehow.”
Asked if he’s continuing to indulge a daredevil streak, Shawn said: “Yeah, adrenaline’s a big part of life. Being able to travel the country and go international with it is definitely a plus, too.”
Those stories don’t surprise Mitchell, who said pole vaulters are a different breed.
“A pole vaulter has to be very crazy,” Mitchell said. “You have to have super all-around athletes — fast, strong, coordinated. Then they have to have that X-Game type of mentality. If you put a pit somewhere high, they’re jumping off onto it. That’s what you want.”
Those in Shawn’s UA classes might not realize their laid-back fellow student is a world-class athlete, but the close-knit pole vault community knows of his promising future. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro seem likely, although Shawn probably would compete for Team Canada.
As a member of the Canadian national team, he took third at the World Junior Track and Field Championships in Barcelona, Spain, in July with a vault of 18-2½. Mitchell said the two finishing ahead of Shawn jumped the same height, but were a year older.
“Pole vaulting is an extremely tough sport,” said Mitchell, who has produced All-Americans at Texas, North Carolina and UA. “You’ve got to handle that mentally. That’s where he’s very strong. He’s a very tough kid. Not too much intimidates him. After he went 18 [at an unofficial convention at UA earlier this month] we said, ‘What do you want to go to next?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to know. Just put it up and I’ll jump it.’ That’s his way of staying focused.”
Shawn has one more year at the junior worlds, but Mitchell said Shawn is also likely to compete in the senior world championship in Moscow in August and at the Junior Pan-Am Games.
“I’m hoping he’ll break a world record or something,” Ann said. “But he’s only 18, there’s a long way to go. Who knows, he could get hurt and end his career. I’m just grateful for each day. He loves to do it.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.