EDMONTON — The pole vault is an event that makes people so nervous most schools don’t let kids do it anymore.
But Shawn Barber was jumping before he was even old enough for grade school.
As a 5-year-old — with homemade poles because manufacturers don’t make them that small — he was vaulting across irrigation canals on the family farm in New Mexico. By 7, he graduated to the pole vault pit inside an old airplane hangar on the farm.
His dad, George Barber, was a Canadian pole vaulter in the 1980s and the pit was for him, his athletes and friends. But the youngest Barber wasn’t about to stay in the house.
“George, there’s a miniature you,” they said, when he started running to the pit with his pole held aloft.
There’s nothing miniature about Shawn anymore.
Still coached by his dad when he’s not in Ohio at the University of Akron, Barber jumps much higher than his dad ever did. (The family joke, of course, being that he has a better coach.)
The 21-year-old has broken the Canadian record so many times he doesn’t keep track anymore. In May, he raised it to 5.91 metres, and that’s ranked as the fourth-highest jump in the world this year.
On Sunday, the final day of the Canadian track and field championships, George Barber, who figured since he was here he might as well jump, cleared 3.80m and was eliminated at 4.00.
“It’s the coolest thing to have him down there when I’m jumping,” the younger Barber said. “If he were jumping a metre or two higher we could go head-to-head and that would be really interesting for me.”
Pole vaulters though, don’t really compete against each other, whether it’s dad or other elites in their prime. It’s more each individual athlete trying to master the event itself.
And on a day when others struggled with the wind and their technique, many running through the pit, bailing mid-jump, falling back on the runway or precariously close to the standards, Barber set a new meet record to win the Canadian title once again.
Pole vault is one of the most difficult sporting endeavours. It takes the speed of a sprinter, the spring of a long jumper and the acrobatics of a gymnast.
From 5.05 metres — the height he opened at and the last height anyone else cleared — to 5.40, Barber made it look easy.
He missed his first attempts at 5.50 and 5.60, looking human for the first time, but with the crowd behind him easily cleared both heights on his second jump.
He tried 5.70 even though he knew it was a stretch on the relatively short poles he was using because of the wind, and that’s where the competition ended.
His 5.60-metre win set a new meet record; the old mark of 5.55 was his, too.
“Overall, I’m quite happy,” Barber said afterward.
“It was a good day to fix a lot of little things on my jumps. When I get to jumping higher bars on the longer poles I’m going to need days like today. Hopefully today will help out in a couple weeks when I take some attempts at higher bars.”
That’s when he’ll be competing in Toronto at the Pan Am Games.
Though he’s spent most of his life in the U.S., Barber has lots of family in and around Toronto and they all are looking forward to seeing him jump.
He’d also like to win, that’s always good— he won the NCAA title this year and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games last year — but his ultimate goal in pole vault is always to keep raising the bar.
“I know I have a lot of potential to jump higher.”