There were lofty expectations for Andrew Irwin when he signed a scholarship to compete in pole vault at Arkansas. The Irwin name was already established in Fayetteville in that sport by his sister, Stephanie, who’d had an All-American career there. Questions were asked if he could possibly do anything close to what his sister did at Arkansas. In this, just his freshman season, Irwin answered them emphatically.
He’s already a two-time champion from the indoor season and has been among the nation’s best all year outdoor as well. As the second season winds down, Irwin, the No. 1 vaulter in the nation and Southeastern Conference, reflects on a season that has been unlike anything he had envisioned.
“I didn’t expect to have anything close to being a national champion my freshman year,” Irwin said. “Not by any means. I jumped 17-9.25 my senior year [in high school] and I really wanted to jump 18 for sure. That was one of my main goals. I thought that would be a pretty good one for my freshman year. But nothing like this.”
At the SEC Indoor Championships, Irwin was the only person to clear 18-1¾ (5.53m) to win that title. Then, at the NCAA Indoor Championships, he was the only to clear 18-2½ (5.55m), which was the best collegiately all season and enough to win that title, too — one of an NCAA-high four times clearing 18 feet.
“[The NCAA title] was a big accomplishment, but I knew I had the rest of the season,” Irwin said. “Now they’re looking at you because you won indoors, now you have to win outdoors because they know you can do it. Which is good for me, because I know that I can, and that I should.
“So I have to keep that drive to make sure I’m doing what I need to do. Because I was there I knew I had a chance. I knew that I could go out and compete with everybody and at least give it a shot.”
He was dominant, and to do it at such a young age, was remarkable in the eyes of his coach.
“[Irwin] had a great high school career and was very well coached in high school,” Arkansas vault coach Doug Case said. “But to come in to a pressure situation like a national championship meet, with his team in the hunt for the title, and perform the way he did, was a special thing.
“Everyone knows that the freshman year is the longest year for an athlete. I think he is handling it well and I have tried to limit his competitions and manage his practice sessions so he finishes strong.”
He set the tone for his outdoor season with a school-record (18-4½, 5.60m) to win the Arkansas Spring Invitational which is currently the fifth-best vault in the world and best in the collegiate ranks so far this outdoor season. Since then, Irwin has cleared more than 17-5¼ (5.31m) twice. He’ll be looking for more this weekend at the SEC Outdoor Championships at Baton Rouge.
“I’ve still got things to work on,” Irwin said. “My vault is not perfect by any means. There are little things I can tweak. Things here and there. It’ll help me greatly if I pay attention to them closely.”
Which is essentially how he got into the sport. He’d tag along to Stephanie’s practices and stay there for hours. Then one day his father, a former collegiate runner asked him if he wanted to try the pole. Irwin was eager to give it a chance.
“I would go to practice every once and a while and play with it a little bit,” Irwin said. “I started getting serious about it my sixth-grade year knowing I could compete in it my seventh-grade year. I worked hard at it with my dad and Morry Sanders [who runs a vault club]. They helped me improve.
As did Arkansas. Irwin credits its training schedule to his successes.
“Being here was definitely a change of pace,” Irwin said. “I have done more workouts than I did in high school. Harder workouts. Running all the weight programs and everything like that. Our weight program has been really good to me this year. It’s helped me out. It’s made me faster. That’s been a big part of this [freshman season].”
On the horizon, beyond the conference and NCAA Championships, is London. He’s already qualified for a B standard with a jump of 550 meters. To earn an A status, he knows he has to score at least a 570 meters.
“I really have some goals left,” Irwin said. “I really try to jump 572. That’s our goal. We’ll keep working on it.
“Andrew is very coachable,” Case said. “He can make a technical change very quickly. Sometimes on the first try. He is level headed and really wants me to make decisions for him during a competition.
‘He is very routine oriented which makes him consistent and hard to fluster. I can count on him to have all his poles ready, marks on the runway and warmed up on time and ready to jump without me watching each step. He is a great young man”