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Canada's Shawn Barber Has Heartbreaking End To Olympics

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Shawn Barber tinkered with his jumps, trying this way and that, to adjust to the swirling winds and soggy conditions at Olympic Stadium on Monday night.

But the Canadian's dream of a medal died on a rain-soaked pole vault mat in an unforgiving Olympic debut.

The reigning world champion from Toronto was a favourite for gold, but struggled mightily in the poor conditions to finish 10th out of the 12 athletes in the final.

"You know, it's just one of those sports that you have to have everything lined up at the right time,'' Barber said afterward. "I tried a couple of things and they didn't pan out how I wanted them to. That's how it goes.

"You get three attempts and you try to make it work in those three.''

shawn barber
Shawn Barber fails to clear 5.65 metres in the men's pole vault final, Aug.15, 2016. (Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Brazil's Thiago Braz Da Silva cleared 6.03 metres to win gold, ahead of world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie of France, who was second with 5.98.

American Sam Kendricks won bronze with 5.85.

The 22-year-old Barber cleared 5.50, before missing on all three attempts at 5.65 — he missed badly on his first attempt, then barely landed in the mat, falling off the corner, on his second attempt. He just nudged the bar on his third attempt, ending Canada's medal streak at nine days.

"You just try to adjust to the wind and the rain and the different conditions, and we're all out there making guesses as to what's going to work,'' he said. "Sometimes you take a risk doing one thing or another and it doesn't work as well as you'd like.''

The six-foot-two redhead said he'd practised and competed in all kinds of conditions to be prepared for whatever was thrown at him. But there's one element he couldn't have practised for.

"I tried a couple of things and they didn't pan out how I wanted them to. That's how it goes."

"Being in an Olympic stadium like this, I've never been on an Olympic stage, so that was a new experience,'' Barber said. "You've got to absorb everything you can, and learn from it as much as you can.''

On another day, 5.65 shouldn't have been a huge hurdle for Barber, who holds the Canadian record of 5.93 metres. Earlier this year he cleared 6.00 metres indoors, which doesn't count as a record. But he had a scare in qualifying two days earlier at Olympic Stadium when he needed three tries to get over 5.45.

The young vaulter was optimistic when he looked at the weather forecast on Sunday night. It originally called for warm temperatures and a light wind.

"Then I look at the weather today, and it's rain and headwind-type conditions,'' he said. "You just never know what it's going to be like and you've got to treat every day with an open mind and just hope that everything works out.''

Wet, windy weather plagued evening session

Heavy rain and strong winds tormented the evening session, sending athletes running for cover for what would turn into a half-hour rain delay.

The delay was closer to an hour for the pole vaulters, as volunteers desperately mopped up the runway with towels.

"It's a struggle for all athletes out there, we all had to endure a little bit more of an endurance sport, I guess you could say,'' Barber said. "It usually doesn't take that long to get going, and of course we had a full warmup and then an hour-long delay before we actually got to jump again. All the athletes are dealing with it differently.''

Barber said, in his case, the chalk he uses for grip doesn't work with a wet pole.

"You can feel a little bit of moisture in your grip when you're trying to grip the pole, and that little bit of hesitation can mean the difference between making the jump or not,'' he said.

Some vaulters prefer to use a sticky spray.

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Shawn Barber waves to the crowd after being eliminated in the men's pole vault final. (Photo: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

China's Xue Changrui was the first vaulter up after the break, and the pit was so drenched that he made a splash like he'd landed in a swimming pool. When he jumped to his feet, he shook he water off vigorously like a dog does after a swim.

In the 110-metre hurdle heats, Brazilian Joao Vitor de Oliveira fell a couple of metres from the finish line, and slid belly-first — think Slip 'N Slide — across the line.

The first two hurdles heats went in such a torrential downpour that hurdlers who didn't qualify by place were given a chance to run again later in the evening.

In the morning session, which was bathed in sunshine, Genevieve Lalonde of Moncton, N.B., finished 16th in the women's 3,000-metre steeplechase. She's the first Canadian to make an Olympic final in the event.

Barber's first Olympics, but he's looking towards 2020

While Barber made his Olympic debut in Rio, but he's been leaping over high bars for the better part of two decades.

He was born in Kincardine, Ont., but grew up on a New Mexico farm where his dad George sawed off poles for Shawn and brother Braden to launch themselves over the irrigation ditches. The property also included an old airplane hangar, where George eventually erected a pole vault pit, gymnastics ring and high bar.

Barber, who holds dual citizenship, competed for the first time at age seven, and would go on to obliterate the U.S. high school record.

He's rewritten the Canadian record several times over, and his world victory last summer in Beijing was the country's first medal in the event.

He can surely take some relief in knowing he's young in a discipline that sees athletes compete into their 30s. Before he left the interview area Sunday night, his thoughts turned to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"I'm excited, I think it's going to be a great venue, great event. I can't wait to go and compete.''

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Canadian Medallists at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
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