BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
IOWA CITY – Elijah Barnes wanted to be a baseball player, then a football player, then an electrician. Three years ago he had no idea what the future held.
This past weekend the 2018 Fort Madison High School graduate found himself caught up with a glimpse of the future and the whirlwind that is the Big 10 Indoor Track and Field championship in Geneva, Ohio.
It was the first outright win for the Hawkeyes and the former Bloodhound was part of the title. Barnes said Iowa won the title in 1929, but technically it was a tie and the 2021 title is the first outright win.
“This is a great feeling. What made it even sweeter is that we’d been flirting with it the past two or three years and this year we won by like 30 points,” Barnes said.
Iowa won the 2019 Big Ten outdoor title, but the 2020 outdoor championships were canceled due to COVID-19.
Barnes earned 3 points for the Hawks with a throw of 18.24 meters on his second attempt of the day good enough for 6th place. He said in warmups he pushed one out 19 feet, which would have been good enough for a top 3 finish had it been a recorded throw.
The Hawkeyes finished with 119 points, 27 ahead of second place Indiana.
Barnes said his goal was to finish in the top three.
“Leading into the week of the Big 10 Indoors was stressful. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to throw,” he said. “I couldn’t even get off my left foot to get out of the back of the ring.”
U of I Throwing Coach Eric Werskey told Barnes to just work on drills while the groin recovered in hopes he would be able to throw in Ohio.
“I took it real light during the week before just to prepare it to make a full throw during competition. I didn’t do a full throw in practice until the day before the meet,” Barnes said.
“It wasn’t the result I wanted. but considering everything and competing with an injury, it was probably the most consistent series of my life.”
Barnes’ throw was a couple feet shy of qualifying for the NCAA Indoor Championships next week, but his goal will be to get to that level in his next two years.
Barnes is technically in his sophomore year with the Hawkeyes. COVID resets wiped out last year’s eligibility hit and the NCAA granted everyone an extra year.
So he just completed his sophomore year of indoor track and has two remaining. He still has three remaining outdoor seasons.
“I guess you could call it a COVID-shirt sophomore year,” Barnes quipped.
The son of Sonja Barnes Shipley of Fort Madison started serious throwing his senior year with the help of former Fort Madison coach Andrew Troxel, who moved back to Wisconsin to lead his alma mater’s football program at Richland Center High School.
Barnes said he still communicates with Troxel, who convinced him if he put in the time and effort as a senior, he could potentially throw in college.
At the state track meet his senior year in 2018 for the Hounds where the Bloodhound took 4th in Class 3A shot put, Barnes had a conversation with the Hawkeyes defensive coordinator about playing football, but didn’t speak with anyone from Iowa City about throwing the shot until after his freshman year at Indian Hills.
“It has been a goal to get to Iowa, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. During my freshman year I said I was going to do this (in junior college) and then I was going to go throw at Iowa.”
The investment paid off as Barnes finished ranked 11th nationally at the NJCAA level. He then transferred to Iowa Central in Fort Dodge for his sophomore year.
At that point he began working with Werskey on his craft.
“He’s insanely knowledgeable, especially in the shot put. He himself trained under the best throwing coaches of all time. He knows how to push me and he knows what my goals are and is supportive,” Barnes said. “He has done everything possible to set me up for success.”
Part of that is getting physically prepared to compete with some of the strongest and disciplined athletes in the country.
Barnes said just before the Christmas break and prior to tweaking his groin, he pulled up 630 pounds in a dead lift and hit 600 pounds on the squat. Barnes said most of his throwing strength comes from his legs.
His emotional strength comes from his mother and his grandparents Dwight and Cindy Barnes.
“For most of my life she’s been a single parent and raised us with support from my grandparents,” he said.
“She instilled in me that if you’re going to do something, and not give it 100%, you shouldn’t do it. Go out and try to be the best at it.”
He said because of COVID, spectators haven’t been allowed at any of the meets, but Sonja and his grandmother surprised him at a meet on the east coast last year.
Sonja said it’s been grueling not seeing her son compete as she liked to make trips to the meets when she could.
“It’s so hard. I’m a single mom and I’m not used to missing anything,” she said. “But thank goodness for all the social media platforms and streaming because I’ve been able to stay connected to him that way.”
She said she’s also developed a good relationship with Werskey and has been able to keep tabs on Elijah’s meets.
She hopes the outdoor season comes with spectators and the pandemic slips into the past.
Her son’s success is met with astonishment by some, but not to her.
“I guess what I tell people when they say this is crazy, is that I see it in him. He’s always been the kid who says, ‘I’m going to do this’, and I’ve been the mom who says ‘Nothing’s stopping you’,” she said.
“And he goes out and does it.”