Beijing Stories: In the life of Shawn Barber, pole vaulting has always been there, by Cathal Dennehy


The pole vault was an example of how this championships is a perfect storm. Take the example of Shawn Barber, a fine young pole vaulter, with strong skill sets and lots of drive. His consistent clearances will continue to win him more and more medals in championships. Lavillenie has had an up and down season. His inability to clear 5.90 meters cost him the only gold medal that he does not possess.

Shawn Barber, at 20, now has the World Championship gold medal.

Oh, Canada! You have a world champion!

Here is fine story by our merry traveler, Cathal Dennehy...

Barber_Shawn1a-LondonDL15.JPgShawn Barber, photo by

In the life of Shawn Barber, pole vaulting has always been there.

It was there as early as he can remember, when he used to watch his dad, George - a 5.48m vaulter who jumped at the 1983 World Championships - compete at meets all around Canada and the US.

It was there at the age of five, when Barber and his brother would pick up crossbars and vault their way across canals on the family farm.

Last night, in Beijing, it was there once again as Barber - with his Dad watching on proudly - became a world champion, upsetting hot favourite Renaud Lavillenie to take the gold medal.

It was the perfect night in the Bird's Nest Stadium for the 21-year-old Canadian, clearing 5.50m, 5.65m, 5.80m and the winning height of 5.90m on his first attempt to take gold on count-back from Germany's Raphael Holzdeppe.

At just 21, and still a student at the University of Akron in Ohio, you wonder if he was nervous competing on such a grand stage?

"I didn't feel any pressure," he says. "It's much easier to be the chaser than to be chased. Renaud was favourite so I knew I could come in, enjoy myself and have a good time."

Unfortunately for Lavillenie, last night's final proved far from a good time, the Frenchman finishing in a three-way tie for the bronze medal, well below his best with a highest clearance of 5.80m.

"Renaud is a great competitor, a great athlete," says Barber. "I want to see my rivals at their best when I compete against them, and to see him not do as well as they want is kind of heartbreaking. I know what he's dealing with, though. I've been there in the past."

Though Barber is still a relatively new face on the global pole vaulting scene, his talent has been obvious for years. In 2012, he was a bronze medallist at the IAAF World Junior Championships and in the past year, has won NCAA titles both indoors and outdoors and improved his personal best to 5.93m.

Watching from the stands last night, his Dad was in little doubt that his son would rise to the occasion. "Whenever he's competing I know the only one that's going to beat him is him," said George. "We do a lot of sign language and communicating back and forth during competitions, but I can't jump for him so I just try to make suggestions."

Barber has been coached by his Dad ever since he first started competing at the age of nine, often jumping alongside high school athletes when George would take him along to competitions where he was vaulting.

Ever since then, his father has built a plan which came to fruition in fine style last night. Many may shirk the idea of being coached throughout by your father, but Barber enjoys the arrangement.

"The only advice I give anybody comes from him," says Barber. "He's an inspiration for me so to have him on my side is a great help. It has its ups and downs, but overall it's been a great experience.

"I look forward to working with him for the future. I don't think he's pushed me very much and I think that's a great thing. If a parent pushes somebody into the sport it can become difficult for him to follow through, and it was always my choice to compete or not."

Barber usually trains alone, except for his father's presence, and outside of his college terms, divides his time between Toronto, Edmonton and Texas. He has dual citizenship, but in his final year of high school he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and represent Canada.

"Athletics is a growing sport in Canada," he says. "Every year we come up and perform and hopefully it continues to grow. They've been a great support for me."

His training usually involves a weights session in the morning for an hour after which his Dad will go to work and Barber will go back to bed, recovering for the evening pole vaulting workout.

Outside of track and field, it's no surprise that Barber is a fan of several other sports which sate his thirst for adventure. Surfboarding, snowboarding, beach volleyball, diving - Barber has done them all, but nothing can replace the love, or indeed the talent, he has for pole vaulting.

At college Barber studies sports science, something which comes in particularly handy when you're facing a career as a professional athlete. "That's part of my career path," he says. "To learn a bit more about the human body and about sport and try and make it work to my advantage."

As a world champion - and one still within the amateur confines of the NCAA system - Barber will now be forced to decide if he wishes to turn professional. "I didn't sign with an agent yet," he said last night, "but we'll see."

Last night, shortly after being crowned world champion, the 21-year-old was already looking to the future.

"The main thing is to keep my head down and keep going," he said. "The sky's the limit."

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