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Wednesday, 18 January 2017 21:35

High Times at Akron’s Pole Vault Convention: Barber Survives Close Shave, AL for Nageotte Featured

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David Hunter interviews Shawn Barber David Hunter interviews Shawn Barber Margaret Hunter
By David Hunter, 1/7/17
While arctic temperatures and bone-chilling winds punished most of the country, a select group of elite pole vaulters were heating things up inside the Stiles Athletic Center on the University of Akron campus at the 5th annual Akron Pole Vault Convention.
Members of pole vault royalty were in attendance. In the women’s competition, the headliner was Jenn Suhr. The 2012 Olympic vault champion and the indoor world record holder had made the trip down from her upstate New York home to take on a worthy field that included former national champion Mary Saxer and emerging young star Katie Nageotte. 
In the men’s event, reigning world champion Shawn Barber and former Zip vault star was looking to make it three Convention wins in a row. Although not competing, retired 2004 Olympic champion and former Olympic record holder Tim Mack was present along with several of his Knoxville vault pupils here to compete and to pick up some technical pointers during the 3-day instructional seminar. Even though she has yet to open her 2017 season, the reigning Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi and her husband Mitchell Krier, new northeastern Ohio residents, were also in the house.
The night’s first surprise occurred even before the first vaulter stepped on the runway when Suhr advised officials after warm-ups she was electing not to compete. Afterwards, the multiple-time Olympian explained what happened. “It’s super early right now. And I had a pretty good jump in warmups that was a little short and I landed funny in the pads. And my back got tight from that,” said Suhr. “So I decided—on January 7th—Don’t push anything.”
With the world indoor champion out and the vault dynamics altered, the remaining 7 athletes soldiered on. When the bar was ultimately raised to 4.45m/14'7¼", only Kelsie Ahbe, Alysha Newman, Kristen Hixson, Nageotte, and Saxer remained. The new height thinned the herd as only Nageotte—with yet another first-attempt clearance—could survive. The win now secured, Nageotte alone tackled 4.60m/15'1" where her second-attempt clearance matched her indoor PR and set a new American leader in this nascent indoor season.
Jumping well, the former NCAA Div. II record holder was eager to move on, especially since she knew the early-season world leading mark—4.66m/15'3½" set earlier this season by Finnish athlete Wilma Murto—was within her grasp. “4.63 is my [overall] PR and so I was thinking about going to 4.65. And I was like, ‘Well, she [Finland's Murto] jumped one centimeter higher than that, so why not go for [the world leading mark]?’” With the bar now at 4.67/15'3¾ the former Ashland University athlete committed two run-through misses before a strained, third-attempt miss ended her evening. 
“I’m really happy with how it today went. I just hope this means good things for the season,” offered Nageotte, who will move to Washington State University after the indoor season to begin training with American outdoor record holder Brad Walker. The winner provided insights on her attempts to set the world-leading mark after the competition had been won. “I was on a 14-foot pole and I went up to a 15-foot pole. My adrenalin was down a little and it was just a little bit harder getting on that pole—as much as I hate admitting that,” confided Nageotte, who plans to compete in Reno’s Pole Vault Summit and the Millrose Games later this indoor season. “I am glad that I went for that. I just wish I had given it a better attempt.”
In the men’s battle, 8 competitors hoped that Akron’s 3-time NCAA champion, who was nursing an injured calf back to health, might be vulnerable to an upset. Barber, who announced he was ready to go before the event got underway, showed rust in his opening competition of 2017 and his first since the injury. But even Barber on an off-night is still very good. And his poise under unexpected pressure showed why he’s the world champion. Seven athletes were still alive as the bar went up to 5.35m/17'6½". But when the bar was next raised to 5.50m/18’0-½”, only Barber, former Tennessee All-American Chase Brannon, and University of Akron sophomore Matt Ludwig remained. The new bar represented an indoor PR height for Brannon and Ludwig, but was nearly 18 inches below Barber's indoor best. 
None of the 3 could clear it. With more misses, Ludwig—who had set an indoor PR earlier in the evening—was sent to the sidelines, finishing 3rd, while Brannon and Barber were left to duke it out in the jump-off. When neither could clear the first jump-off height of 5.50m, the bar went down to 5.45m/17'10½. When Brannon missed, the Canadian Olympian sealed the deal with a clean clearance and his best jump of the night.
Afterwards, the winner reflected on his Convention vault win—his 3rd in a row. “I just came in with hopes to plant a pole and hopefully get over a bar. I really wasn’t expecting to jump well today,” said Barber who was accorded a #4 world ranking last year by Track & Field News. “That being said, I am very happy with how I opened. I think there is a lot of room for improvement on that jump. That European tour coming up at the end of the month should be very good for me,” added Barber, who is scheduled to compete in a series of indoor meets on the continent next month.
The Nike athlete continues to note healing and improvement with his tender calf. “Honestly, the calf didn’t feel too bad for most of the night. I really can’t complain too much about it. It is really doing well through recovery.” Barber likely won’t compete again in the United States until his outdoor opener at the Texas Relays and he knows the 2017 season is a long grind. And he wants to be at his best 7 months from now when he will undertake the defense of his world championship crown in London. 
“You’ve just got to go and give yourself the best shot to do well. That’s what every athlete is doing,” explains Barber on his approach to the upcoming world championships. “I think as long as I can go to sleep every night knowing that I’m doing just a little more than somebody else, I’ll be all right.” (By Dave Hunter)
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