Akron's Shawn Barber: Scaling new heights

Akron junior Shawn Barber won his second NCAA Indoor pole vault title with a collegiate-record clearance of 19 feet, 4 3/4 inches last March. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Harwell)

These are heady times for junior Shawn Barber, Akron’s NCAA Indoor champion in the pole vault.

Over the past six weeks, Barber established a Canadian indoor record (he’s a dual citizen), flew to California for the Mt. SAC Relays, returned to Akron briefly before catching a flight to New York City for the Sullivan Award ceremonies and then headed to the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, where one of his competitors was Renaud Lavillenie of France, the reigning Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the pole vault.

Whew!

“It is a very exciting time,’’ Barber said in a phone interview. “Everything I’ve been working (toward) for several months is really coming together. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.’’

Barber’s eventful season as a collegian culminates with the 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, June 10-13, at Hayward Field, followed by the Canadian championships three weeks later. Barber has already been selected to compete for Team Canada at August’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing, but he must still demonstrate fitness at the country’s national championships, July 2-5.

University of Akron Shawn Barber NCAA indoor pole vault champion Drake Relays

Akron junior Shawn Barber cleared 19-1 to finish in a tie for first place at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Chris Donahue)

The story of how a young man from Kingwood, Texas came to represent Canada and attend school in Akron, Ohio, is a pretty simple one, one that shows the importance of relationships. He was born in the U.S. to an American mother and a Canadian father. George Barber was a pole vaulter himself, at UTEP, where one of his college rivals was Utah’s Dennis Mitchell, a vaulter not to be confused with the sprinter of the same name.

The elder Barber, who competed for the Canadian national team, got to know Mitchell in their competitive days and when it came time for his son to choose a college, wouldn’t you know Mitchell was now the head coach at the University of Akron. Simple.

“His dad and I were friends in college, and rivals,’’ Mitchell said. “We were good friends after the competitions. We had that connection. His dad’s got a great mind for the pole vault. It’s been a great thing overall. You can see the results.’’

The younger Barber has progressed well at Akron.

He was third in the NCAA outdoor championships as a freshman in 2013, second as a sophomore in 2014, and now hopes to add an NCAA outdoor title to the indoor version he won earlier this year with a personal best 19 feet, 4 ¾ inches, setting a Canadian indoor record in the process.

“Canada has treated him really well. It’s been a good relationship,’’ Mitchell said.

But for now, Barber is a Zip (Akron’s school mascot), not a Canuck. What the heck is a Zip, anyway?

“A Zip is a kangaroo,’’ Barber said. “That’s what we call ourselves. I don’t understand it, either. I’m very proud of my Zips. I’ve been with them three years. We’re all very supportive of each other. We’re all working in a direction toward a (Mid-American Conference) championship. Go, Zips.’’

Aside from an NCAA outdoor title in June, Barber is working toward what all elite vaulters strive for, the “6-Meter Club,” a height of 19-8 ¼ that confers international respect, and currently includes only 16 men on the outdoor list. Barber would also like to clear 20 feet someday, a height (6.10 meters) attained outdoors by only the great Sergey Bubka.

Akron pole vaulter Shawn Barber reacts after a clearance at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon last year. (TrackTown Photo by Phil Johnson)

Akron pole vaulter Shawn Barber reacts after a clearance at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon last year. (TrackTown Photo by Phil Johnson)

“It’s huge for a pole vaulter,’’ Barber said of 6 meters. “The 6-meter mark is what everybody dreams of. It distinguishes you as an elite pole vaulter. The 6-Meter Club is the prestigious club everyone is trying to get into. It’s prestigious because it’s so hard to get into it.’’

One of those members is Lavillenie, whom Barber competed against, and bettered, at Drake. Lavillenie won a street vault several days before the meet proper at 18-8 ¼ but faltered in cold conditions on Saturday (April 25), clearing only 18-5 ¼. Barber, meanwhile, finished in a tie for first place at 19-1 with Sam Kendricks, the 2014 NCAA and USA outdoor champion from Mississippi.

Before the meet, Barber was asked his thoughts on the man Track & Field News magazine named as its 2014 Male Athlete of the Year. The Frenchman scaled 20-2 ½ indoors (6.16) last year.

“It’s a lot of pressure,’’ Barber said. “He’s a great vaulter. We live off the pressure as pole vaulters. Hopefully, I can hold up competing with him and give him a run for his money.’’

Last year, Barber cleared 18-10 ¼ indoors and improved that mark to a collegiate record 19-4 ¾ at this year’s NCAA indoor meet. He set his outdoor best of 19-4 ¼ at the Texas Relays in late March; a meet record and tied with Jacob Davis (Texas, 1998) for the No. 2 jump in collegiate outdoor history.

Other than the quality of the running surface, conditions never vary indoors; they’re always perfect. Outdoors is another matter, with wind and rain playing particular havoc for a vaulter.

“Drake isn’t known for the best weather,’’ Mitchell said before the meet. “It will be a great matchup. He’ll definitely go after some big bars. He’s very much ready. The dream things are the 6-meter mark and 20 feet. Those are the things you want to get. At least have some shots at it.’’

Akron junior Shawn Barber competes in the street vault at the Drake Relays. (Photo courtesy of Chris Donahue)

Akron junior Shawn Barber competes in the street vault at the Drake Relays. (Photo courtesy of Chris Donahue)

Not to mention an NCAA outdoor title.

While Kendricks turned pro last fall, giving up his final season of collegiate eligibility, Barber still has to contend with Tennessee’s Jake Blankenship, the 2015 NCAA Indoor runner-up who has cleared 19-0 ¼, indoors and outdoors.

Speaking of Barber, Kendricks and Blankenship, Mitchell said, “It’s a great rivalry. It’s something that’s going to be exciting to watch in the future.’’

Barber credited his encouraging start to the 2015 season on a good training base in the fall that carried over to indoors.

“I had more time to get physically fit,’’ he said. “That extra fitness and extra time to work on technique really helps and it did lead to breakthroughs.’’

Then, too, it doesn’t hurt to have as your head coach a fellow pole vaulter, or a father who served as your first coach and who still vaults to this day in masters competitions.

“I’ve been jumping with him since I could ride a bicycle, basically,’’ Barber said of his 55-year-old father. “I enjoyed it. I didn’t have any pressure to do it … a couple of years ago he was in the 13-foot range. When you get up in that age, things start to fall apart.’’

For the younger Barber, however, things are starting to fall together quite nicely.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Big aspirations for Texas A&M’s Little

Finding his sweet spot

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.