Kieme Barr didn’t need years of training or a life-long coach to become one of the nation’s top-10 high jumpers. He didn’t even need to use his right foot. All he needed was one month.
The Buchholz High School junior will represent the United States this July when he competes in the Down Under Sports 2015 Australian Tournament, if he is able to raise enough money to cover the travel expenses.
His top-10 finish in Iowa in July 2014 led Barr, 17, to be noticed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association coaches.
“I didn’t even know I qualified for it,” Barr said. “My coach handed me a letter and I read it. They asked me to run in Australia and I said, ‘Ok, I’ll do it.’”
The accomplishment was unexpected for Barr. He grew up playing soccer, which is how he trained to run for long periods of time.
When he was 12, he ran track and field but stopped in middle school to play football. Barr broke his finger and after four years of playing football, he returned to running track.
When Barr competed at the Junior Olympics last summer, he said the difficult qualifying process was a “cakewalk.” In his first meet as a high jumper, he came in second place in the Amateur Athletic Union Region 9 Qualifier.
When he arrived for the tournament in Iowa, his coaches realized he had been jumping off of the wrong foot. Wary that a last-minute change before the competition would ruin his progress, they let him continue with his approach. He excelled in vertical jump development and as a jumper without using the right technique.
Barr also went into the meet with a strained back. Yet he still cleared 1.77 meters—roughly 5 feet 8 inches—to become the only qualifier in the top 50 from Florida.
But Barr was unsatisfied with the result. He said he hit 6 feet in the qualifier and wants to reach 7 feet 4 inches by the time he gets to Australia.
Rafael Johnson, one of Barr’s high school track coaches, said Barr is one of the hardest working athletes on the team.
“I mean, he’s got a lot of talent,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of natural ability. That’s just given to him. He’s got a great attitude.”
Johnson and fellow Buchholz coach, L’Tonya Johnson, said they have never had an athlete invited to the Australian Tournament. They said the high jump is one of the hardest events to pick up because of the technique and they have never seen someone as natural at the event as Barr.
L’Tonya Johnson said she will be paying her own travel costs for the trip to Australia to see him compete.
“I love my athletes,” she said. “I’d spend every penny on them, especially athletes like (Barr) because you’re never guaranteed to have an athlete like this again. So when they get these types of opportunities, you want to be there.”
Despite what he’s accomplished in such a short time, his trip to Australia will depend on whether he is able to raise enough money before the June 1 deadline.
He and his family have been fundraising. They have raised about $600 from T-shirt sales and a GoFundMe page but still have a long way to go to reach the $6,000 needed to cover the trip.
If he’s able to raise the money, Barr will fly out of Los Angeles with the rest of the United States team and become one of the few amateur athletes able to represent the U.S. in the Australian Tournament.
If he can’t attend this year, he will have one more chance before he graduates to participate in 2016 in the global sporting event, Barr said. But there is no guarantee he will be invited back.
Despite the June deadline, his mother RaMona Barr said she is optimistic that everything will be all right in the end.
“I just feel that he’s blessed to have this opportunity because I think it gives him the opportunity to open doors for other people,” she said. “It came out of the blue for him; it could happen for somebody else. It’s not impossible.”