Canadian pole vaulter Shawn Barber has had a remarkable summer in which he has won titles at the NCAAs, Pan American Games, and now the World Championships. This is how the University of Akron student went from snapping poles in a barn to winning gold in the Bird's Nest Stadium.
Shawn Barber's earliest memories of ‘the sport’ were vaulting over three-foot deep irrigation canals at the family farm in New Mexico.
“The water at the bottom of the canal added an extra element,” recalls Barber, whose father, George, is a 5.47m vaulter. “I usually got safely across, but that one time I would mess up, you would end up in the water.”
A little later, aged “seven or eight”, he enjoyed his first formal pole vaulting experience on a runway build by his father in a barn. Barber broke a pole, but despite that less-than-perfect start, he insists “it was no big deal for me”.
Barber tried many different sports growing up, including soccer and American football. He even turned his hand to diving, until one painful episode made him reconsider.
He was doing well in a Texas High School Championships, and for his last dive of the competition he pulled out a move from the top drawer. It went horribly wrong. “I missed it. It was horrid and I flopped in the water,” he says.
He placed seventh, and in his high school senior year he decided to focus on the pole vault. Still, diving had its benefits. “It helped me with body awareness and gymnastic experience,” he adds.
We can't say for sure, but we think this means Barber is a fan of The Mask of Zorro
Chip off the old block
Having a father from a pole vaulting background (note, Barber has two coaches: his father, George, and Dennis Mitchell, who is no relation to the ex-sprinter of the same name) has been of huge benefit to the 21-year-old’s career.
“We always allude to climbing up a mountain in our journey to reaching greatness in sport,” Barber says. “As my father has been halfway up the mountain, it was easy for me as he led the way and I just had to follow in his footsteps. Now I have surpassed some of his experiences we are making the rest of the journey up the mountain together, and I have that companion with me to help.”
Barber bettered his dad’s pole vault PB in his senior year at high school. But he had too much respect to pass comment. “You don’t poke the bear.” Sage words.
Born and raised in the US, Barber naturally always felt more connected with America growing up. However, through his Canadian-born father, a part of him has always been a man of the Maple leaf, hence his decision to compete for the home of Bryan Adams, Mounties and ice hockey.
“I could always relate to my father’s love for his country and why it is such a special place,” he recalls. “When you hear stories from your parents growing up, and because you idolise them, that just added to my love of Canada.”
Barber is congratulated by World Championship silver medallist Raphael Holzdeppe. The Canadian won on count back after they both went over 5.90m
Barber’s first major championship proved a huge success as he bettered his PB by 20 centimetres to win bronze with 5.55m at the 2012 World Juniors in Barcelona.
In that competition he cleared his best four times and only wound up third on count back to Brazilian Thiago Braz (gold) and Croatian Ivan Horvat (silver). “I got a slew of PRs and, as it was the first time I’d jumped at a meet without my father or a coach, it proved to me I can be independent and be good.”
Since then, the University of Akron student has gone on to win the Pan American Games junior and senior titles and three NCAA gold medals (two indoors one out). He has a theory as to why he has such a strong championship record.
“I think people can stress too much and over-think things, and this can kill performances,” he says. “I’m not afraid of the pressure. I enjoy the crowd cheering for me. Some people have a hard time with this and forget how to jump.”
Barber’s crazy few years came to a head at the Beijing World Championships. Ahead of the competition, he was modest about his aims.
“It would be nice to get on the podium for Canada and try to give Renaud [Lavillenie] a run for his money,” he said last month. “But the main priority is just to have fun. I pole vault not for the money or fame, but just to enjoy myself.”
He certainly rattled Lavillenie, and there can be little doubt that he will have enjoyed the silky first-time clearance at 5.90m that as good as gifted him gold in the Bird’s Nest. Best summer ever.
"I wanted to come back in the off-season and put some things together to prove to myself I could do it"
Occasionally Barber gets it wrong – and on those occasions it hurts. He was disappointed with his performance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where he secured bronze with a best of 5.45m. He wanted more, but the disappointment acted as motivation during the winter months.
“I beat myself up once in a while and I wanted to come back in the off-season and put some things together to prove to myself I could do it.”
As his Commonwealth Games quest ended on August 1, he finished his season early and resumed training in mid-September, earlier than previous years. The groundwork he put in has allowed him to be “healthier and fitter” than ever, and he now works off a higher grip and on bigger poles.
These changes are partly behind the stellar 2015 Barber has enjoyed. However beyond technical adjustments, there is a sense that Barber has simply come of age, having advanced his PB by 18 centimetres from last year to 5.93m. Beijing was the sixth competition this year where he has been over 5.90m; it will surely not be the last time that he announces his enormous talent to the world.