Pole Vault Rivals In Aerial Combat: Barber, Kendricks Could Duel For A Decade by Dave Hunter

The pole vault is one of the truly hot events of 2015. Renaud Lavillenie, the new WR holder, cleared 5.92m in Reno, Nevada. In the number two positions are number three positions in the pole vault world so far in 2015 are Shawn Barber and Sam Kendricks.

Dave Hunter wrote this piece on these two new emerging vault stars. Hunter has been able to see them up close as he pursues his second career as a track meet announcer. Dave provides the reader a birds' eye view two of the hottest vaulters in the world, and we are fortunate for those observations. 


Photo of Shawn Barber (left) and Sam Kendricks (right)

Pole Vault Rivals In Aerial Combat
Barber, Kendricks Could Duel For A Decade

In track & field - as in all sports - when a young talent begins to emerge, there is a certain sense of excitement that ripples through the sport as speculation grows about the athlete and his or her potential.  But in our sport when two young competitors begin to blossom at the same time and in the same event, the excitement takes on special anticipation.

We are witnessing this now in the men's pole vault where Shawn Barber and Sam Kendricks - two talented young collegians - are engaging in some epic showdowns as they move the bar higher.  Barber and Kendricks have staged several exciting vault duels over the past several years.  But given their high-flying battles over the past month?  Oh, it's so on. 

Still in the early stages of this indoor season, Barber [5.87m / 19'3"] and Kendricks {5.86m / 19'2¾"] currently rank as the #2 and  #3 performers respectively on the world leader board.  But the evolution of their growing rivalry goes back several years.  

Shawn Barber - a soft-spoken athlete with dual U.S. / Canadian citizenship - is a junior at the University of Akron.  The reigning NCAA indoor pole vault champion and outdoor runner-up broke onto the vault scene in 2012 when he set the U.S. national high school vault record of 5.57m [18'3½"].  Since then, Barber has achieved steady progression with a best frosh mark of 5.71m [18'8¾"] and a best sophomore clearance of 5.75m [18'10¼"].  Since his early days growing up in Texas, the reigning Commonwealth Games bronze medalist has been tutored by his father George - a former world class pole vaulter who cleared 17'10¾" in the early '80's and competed on several Canadian national teams.  The senior Barber - a Texas resident who speaks almost daily with his high-flying prodigy - likes to bring a low-key, playful approach to mentoring his son.  "When we are out there vaulting, we are playing," explains George.  "And the goal is to be able to continue playing long after the others are finished and have to put their toys away."    

Sam Kendricks - an Old Miss senior and ROTC cadet who will graduate in June as a second lieutenant in the Army - is a very approachable, polite, and easy-going athlete.  Like Barber, his vault progression is impressive.  As a high school senior, Kendricks cleared 17 feet - it capped a 4'6" improvement over just 3 years.  He has rolled on as a Rebel, jumping 5.49m [18'] as a frosh and clearing 5.80m [19'¼"] as a sophomore.  "My goal has been to improve every year," explains Kendricks matter-of-factly.  "It's as simple as that."  Also like Barber, Kendricks has been aided ably by his father Scott, a former high school coach who guided Oxford High School to 11 Mississippi state titles in track & field and cross country.  "I'm his son and he loves track and field," explains Kendricks as he outlines the easy working partnership he shares with his father.  "He has the time and he makes the time.  Now that we are in the professional ranks, he wants to help me with my fledgling career.  So I never have any other conflict like any other athlete might have who doesn't have a parent for a coach."

But there seems to be more than just excellent coaching and unwavering commitment behind the ongoing progression of both Shawn Barber and Sam Kendricks.  There has been a special magic that arises when these two athletes square off on the runway.  "Shawn and I have been jumping together ever since he came into the college ranks," notes Kendricks.  "I didn't know him until he broke the high school national record."  When these two vaulters tangled at the 2014 NCAA indoor meet, the two dueled to dizzying heights.  Kendricks had been the leader throughout - jumping clean through 5.70m [18'8¼"].  The chess match began when Barber - after a Kendricks' clearance at 5.70m - missed on his first attempt at 5.70m and elected to pass.  It proved to be the savvy move when the Zip's magnificent first round clearance at 5.75m [18'10¼] allowed Barber to snatch the win when Kendricks went three-and-out.  Adds Kendricks, "That was the best vault day in my entire life.  No misses for 10 bars in a row.  And then Shawn out jumps me right at the end."   

But the Mississippi athlete then turned the tables on his Akron foe at the 2014 NCAA outdoor championships when the clean-jumping Barber led Kendricks as the bar went up to 5.65m [18'6½"]. When Kendricks missed after a first round clearance by Barber, Kendricks passed as the bar went up to 5.70m [18'8¼"].  The payback was complete when Kendricks higher clearance snatched the victory and spoiled the Zip's masterful series as Barber went 0 for 3. 

After his stirring come-from-behind win at the NCAA outdoor meet, the rising Ole Miss senior signed with Nike, turned professional, and won the 2014 outdoor USATF pole vault title - the first athlete to capture both the NCAA and national outdoor vault titles since Lawrence "LoJo" Johnson turned the trick in 1996.  Noting that in '96 Johnson also won the NCAA indoor vault title, Kendricks smiles and adds, "I would have had that too save for Shawn Barber."

Both young vaulters jumpstarted their 2015 campaigns on impressive notes.  Just after the beginning of the year, Barber sent a message - not just to Kendricks, but to vault community at large.  At a vault convention in Benton, Texas, Barber won the event with a tremendous first-attempt clearance at 5.87 [19'3"], edging Kendricks who soared over 5.71m [18'8¾"] to capture second.  While Barber's last two jumps in Texas were his first foray at or above 19 feet, his winning leap bettered the existing collegiate pole vault record of 5.85m [19'2¼'] set by Texas' Jacob Davis in 1999 and was the then-WL mark.  To put Barber's new record-smashing vault in proper perspective:  in all of 2014, only WR holder Renaud Lavillenie and Germany's Malte Mohr jumped higher.

"The meet was just like any other meet:  high intensity," the new collegiate record holder explains.  "Of course, any time me and Sam get together it seems to be high intensity."  But Barber soon found himself in a trance-like rhythm as he cleared bar after bar and finally faced the record height.   "It's funny when you look back on things, you can think of a thousand things that would go through your mind," Barber explains.  "But when you are in the moment, it is very simple.  It is very clear - especially if you are jumping well that day.  Everything has a flow to it that you can't really describe."

The following week, Kendricks and Barber dueled again.  At the University of Akron's Pole Vault Convention, Kendricks - jumping first - was in command until his first attempt miss at 5.80m [19'½"].  Smelling blood, the hometown favorite knew the event was on the line.  Barber's clutch first round clearance at 5.80m proved to be the winner when neither of the Nike athlete's final two attempts at that height were successful.  Later this week, Barber and Kendricks will do battle once again at the Armory Track Invitational.  If form holds, their head-to-head competition will bring out the best in each of them.  

It is exciting to consider the yet-untapped potential of these two pole vault stars.  Because of the time and commitment required to build speed and strength and to master and refine the intricate and sequenced vaulting technique, most truly exceptional pole vaulters don't reach their pinnacle performance years until their late 20's or early 30's.  Renaud Lavillenie was 27 last year when he cleared 6.16m [20'2½"] to break Sergey Bubka's nearly 19 year old world record the Russian set when he was 30.  Jeff Hartwig - who graduated from college with a vault PR of 17'8" - didn't set his still-standing AR in the indoor vault of 6.02m [19'9] until he was 34.  Barber, 20 years old, and Kendricks, still only 22, are both collegians who have cleared in excess of 19 feet - each showing that further progression is ahead. 

Given the tender of ages of Barber and Kendricks, the track & field community relishes the thought of watching these young vaulters continue to mature and progress.  "That's the beauty of having a rival that's going to go with you over these coming years," reflects Kendricks as he contemplates ongoing seasons of aerial battles with his Canadian counterpart.  When Sam Kendricks is asked to consider that he and Shawn Barber may well be locked in as intense pole vault rivals for the next decade - or even longer - the soon-to-be first lieutenant smiles and adds, "It would be fun.  I would love that."  We would, too.

Dave Hunter, who ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the highly revered Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic era, is a track and field announcer, broadcaster, and journalist. To find out more about Dave, please visit www.trackandfieldhunter.com.

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