Shawn Barber, Canada’s national record holder and 2015 world champion in the pole vault, has died at the age of 29 from unspecified medical complications, according to statements from his agent and Athletics Canada. The sudden passing of the popular track and field star has shocked the Canadian sports community and prompted an outpouring of tributes from friends, fellow athletes, and fans across the country and around the world.
Barber’s Standout Athletic Career
Barber burst onto the international track and field scene as a teenager in 2010 when he won the world junior title in the pole vault with a height of 5.50 meters. He followed up that performance by claiming the gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships and winning his first Canadian senior title in 2012 at age 18.
Over the next few years, Barber established himself as Canada’s top pole vaulter, breaking the national record multiple times. His athletic career hit its peak in 2015 when he capped a dominant season with a gold medal at the World Championships in Beijing, soaring over the bar at 6.00 meters to edge defending champion Renaud Lavillenie of France.
Key Career Highlights
|World Junior Champion
|Pan American Junior Champion
|First Canadian Senior Title
|World Champion, Gold Medal at 6.00m
|Canadian Record of 6.03m
That world title made Barber just the third Canadian man to be crowned world champion in a field event. He also competed at two Olympic Games in 2012 and 2016, finishing in 7th and 5th place respectively. Barber set the Canadian national record at 6.03 meters in 2016, a mark that still stands today.
Off the track, Barber was best known for being one of track and field’s few openly gay athletes. He often spoke about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports and how he hoped his success could inspire others.
Shock and Sadness Over Barber’s Unexpected Death
News of Barber’s premature death began spreading on the evening of January 18th, 2023. His sports management agency HEPS confirmed that he had passed away from unspecified “medical complications” at his home in Akron, Ohio earlier that day. Barber had settled in Akron after his standout collegiate career at the University of Akron, where he won an NCAA title in 2013.
The announcement came as a huge shock across the tight-knit pole vault community. Though he had dealt with some injuries recently, the 29-year-old Barber was still competing and training at a high level. Just last summer, he placed 4th at the Canadian championships and seemed poised to take another shot at the 2024 Olympics.
Tributes and condolences immediately began pouring in on social media from friends, fellow vaulters, Canadian sports figures, and major athletics organizations:
World record holder Mondo Duplantis called Barber a “great friend and role model” in a tweet. Duplantis and Barber frequently competed against each other as young athletes prior to Duplantis switching his national allegiance to Sweden from the United States.
Longtime Canadian pole vault star Alysha Newman expressed her grief on Instagram, calling Barber’s death “an enormous loss for our sport and our country.” Other Canadian track stars including sprinter Aaron Brown, hurdler Phylicia George, race walker Evan Dunfee also paid tribute on social media.
Both World Athletics and Athletics Canada released statements praising Barber’s champion legacy and extending sympathies to his family and loved ones.
Remembering Barber’s Impact On and Off the Track
Beyond his athletic achievements, many in the track community emphasized the legacy Barber leaves behind as an inspiration to LGBTQ+ youth through his openness about his sexuality. After coming out publicly in 2013, Barber talked in interviews about how hiding his orientation early in his career created mental strain. He became a proud role model for gay athletes and a true trailblazer in a sport where few have come out.
Barber’s engaging personality and reputation as a good sportsman also earned him admiration from opponents and teammates alike. As the tributes show, the Canadian’s infectious charm and friendship clearly touched many across the global track and field circuit through the years. That universal popularity allowed him to play an active role as an ambassador for the sport in recent years.
While sudden deaths of young elite athletes often prompt conversations about extreme training methods and “overtraining”, there is not yet any evidence Barber’s passing was linked to his preparation regime. By all accounts, the 29-year-old seemed his usual vibrant, healthy self in the days preceding his shocking death. The exact cause is expected to be clarified in coming weeks by authorities in conjunction with his family.
What Comes Next After the Community Mourning
In the immediate future, those closest to Barber will gather both physically and digitally to properly memorialize the beloved star taken too soon. undoThe Canadian track and field community has experienced tragic, untimely deaths of top athletes in the recent past – including Olympic medalists Deon Lendore and Shawnacy Barber (no relation to Shawn) over the past two years. Sadly, they will lean on those learnings to support each other through the grieving process.
Looking further ahead, Barber’s legacy will be honored through initiatives and commemorations from various Canadian sport organizations. Athletics Canada may establish a new annual pole vault series or trophy bearing his name. Given his impact as a role model, campaigns or funded positions promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion in national sport are likely to take shape. The University of Akron already renamed its pole vault runway as the “Shawn Barber Runway” so expect similar dedications at training facilities across the country.
While nothing can make up for this horrible tragedy, the tributes flowing in show that Shawn Barber’s athletic excellence, courage, charisma and champion spirit touched countless lives in Canada and internationally. His memory will motivate and inspire both vaulters and LGBTQ+ athletes for generations. All of Canadian athletics mourns his passing deeply today but pledges to keep his legacy soaring high forever.
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