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High Jumping Lands a Great Friendship
Brigetta Barrett and Liz Patterson use their friendship, with some guidance from former Wildcat star Tanya Hughes, to meet their goals in the high jump.
"I don't think I'm driven to succeed," Tanya Hughes said to the Tucson Citizen in 1994. "I think I am driven to always do better. There's never an end goal. There's never a point of total satisfaction."
Hughes still holds the Arizona school record for the outdoor high jump. On May 22, 1992, Hughes cleared 6 feet, 5-and-a-half inches and broke former Wildcat Maryse Ewanje-Epee's record set in 1985.
Brigetta Barrett, affectionately known as B.B. by her teammates, has been sniffing at Hughes' record since August 2011. Barrett has come within half-inch of the outdoor record, but grabbing both the indoor and outdoor collegiate records is only task one on her high jump to-do list.
Barrett is tied for the top mark in the world but hangs nothing on her No. 1 position heading into an Olympic summer.
"Rankings don't dictate performance," Barrett said. "I know there will be people jumping out of the woodwork." Barrett attributes her mature outlook to her mentor, training partner and roommate Liz Patterson.
"My freshman year, I was very inconsiderate. I never thought 'maybe I shouldn't sing all night,'" Barrett laughs. But Barrett had a seasoned veteran Patterson to graciously show her the way.
Patterson, a two-time NCAA Champion in the high jump, hosted the spirited Barrett on her recruiting trip to University of Arizona.
"I'm going to win nationals," Barrett verbally spewed to her host on her recruiting trip. Patterson stared at her to ensure she was altogether serious, and after realizing she was, calmly said, "OK, but you're going to have to work for it."
Work for it she did. But just like Hughes, there is no point of total satisfaction for Liz or B.B.
"Once I realized I was good, I wanted to be great," Barrett said.
Barrett also knew she had to be great at something to buy her ticket to college. Her family was not in a place to afford collegiate tuition, and after watching her older sister incessantly applying for college grants, Barrett knew she needed to make it big athletically or academically. Nothing would keep her from going to college.
Barrett moved to Dallas for her junior year of high school and it proved to be a move she thought was part of her divine plan.
"God led me to Dallas, Texas where my coach took me under her wing and became a second mother," Barrett said. "I truly believe it was part of God's plan to get me to where I am now. "
Barrett's aspirations of a college education seemed near when letters started to flow in her junior year. She was clueless as to which colleges had good track programs, so she started asking around. Barrett is no introvert. You can find her belting out a song in a McKale Memorial Center bathroom to an audience of strangers or watch her bust a move before a jump at a track meet to know that she is comfortable in her skin.
Barrett asked all of the high school coaches at her high school track meets who the big names in college high jump coaching were and the resounding reply was "Sheldon Blockburger."
Blockburger is in his seventh season as the jumps and combined events coach at the UA, and has coached an athlete to at least one national title six of his seven seasons. Blockburger has also coached a number of athletes onto Olympic teams, and that is not something recruits as elite as Barrett and Patterson shrug off.
When July 1 after her junior year rolled around (the first day college coaches can contact recruits), Barrett heard crickets, but never the ring of her Cricket cell phone. Barrett panicked thinking her collegiate dream was slipping away. She called her high school coach who put her at ease, and reminded Barrett her phone was out of its service range. The high school's phones had been ringing in wild demand of Barrett.
Patterson's path to the UA was less direct. Also a Texas girl, Patterson never competed against Barrett until college because she was a freshman at Arizona when Barrett moved to Texas.
Blockburger was also the biggest draw of Arizona to Patterson, but she did not know it until she met him face-to-face.
"I knew there was something special about him," Patterson remembers thinking. She was blown away by his knowledge of the sport and the talent he had developed in 2008 Olympian Sharon Day while coaching at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
Six years later, Patterson still works with Blockburger, but has traded the Arizona block "A" in for an Asics logo since turning professional in 2010.
Jumping professionally but still training alongside collegiate athletes has its challenges, but for Patterson, professional jumping was part of her plan.
"I feel like I have made that step," Patterson says about her sponsored status. "After finishing my eligibility I said 'I don't care if I have to jump in Keds, I just want to jump!'"
Competing as a pair
Patterson's love for the sport is not near its expiration date. She wants to jump through the Rio de Janiero Olympics in 2016.
Since meeting Wildcat high jumping legend Tanya Hughes at the 2011 Pac-10 Outdoor Championships, Patterson and Barrett have kept in close touch with the 1994 NCAA Woman of the Year and former multi-time NCAA Champion.
"Tanya is a very genuine and sincere person who has our best interests at heart," Patterson said. "She is always motivating us and has been a big sister to us."
Hughes knows the transition from being a UA athlete to becoming a professional can be a challenge. "You are still in the same place with the same coaches, and can start wondering 'What's next for me?'" Hughes said.
But having B.B. around keeps things fresh for Patterson.
"She is so young, but understands there is so much more than track in life," Patterson said. "There are so many other things to do and to talk about other than track."
And this explains how these two high jumping studs are able to compete against each other, train together, eat together, and go home to their shared apartment and watch TV together.
Patterson and Barrett maintain a friendly competiveness, and find it ludicrous that anyone would think of them as rivals.
"We are both easygoing people," Patterson said. "We leave it all on the track. There's no animosity there."
In Barrett's mind she is never competing against Patterson.
"We're always competing with each other," Barrett said. "I'm always cheering for Liz."
Barrett's freshman year, she looked to Patterson for guidance.
"I admired her from the moment I met her," Barrett said. "I wouldn't take anyone else for Liz. We both have fun. We both want to be great and we know that."
Barrett described her freshman year watching Jasmin Day, a former UA high jumping star, and Patterson get up early to do extra abdominal work before practice. Barrett, not willing to let her teammates get the edge, reluctantly rolled out of bed early to embark on her mission to be great.
"I was not going to sit there and watch two of the best get better," Barrett said.
A senior when Barrett was a freshman, Patterson did not realize how much of a mentor she was.
"Liz will do whatever it takes to push me to be great," Barrett said. "She is the sister God gave me for college. She is always there."
Both 6 feet tall and composed of lean, Avatar-like muscle, Patterson and Barrett could pass for sisters. They even treat one another with familial love and respect.
Barrett recounted Patterson pointing out her own struggles and past failures, in hopes that Barrett could learn from her mistakes.
Patterson's gentle demeanor and selfless attitude mixed with Barrett's theatrical charisma and incredible drive makes for a dynamic training duo. And in this case, makes for a very elite set of best friends.
"Barrett's life aspirations are almost unreal. She is so motivating. She pushes me to do things outside of track," Patterson said. In her downtime, Patterson now tutors at Tucson elementary schools.
London 2012. It was something Barrett did not want to talk about, but after so much success leading into an Olympic year it has become a tough topic to dodge.
The Olympic Trials will take place at the historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. The trials begin June 21 and conclude on July 1. But the only days Patterson and Barrett will anticipate are June 28 and June 30 – the qualifiers and the finals of their baby, the high jump.
To prepare for the trials, Barrett and Patterson are pushing their limits in practice.
Barrett has taken notes from American decathlete Ashton Eaton, who practices at his PR (personal record) so he is able to attack the daunting height with more confidence each time.
Patterson competed at Olympic Trials in 2008 (also in Eugene), so she knows the particulars of the meet and is approaching this year's trials differently than she did in 2008.
"I was so happy to be there in 2008," Patterson said. "But I had to PR by 3 inches to make the team." Three inches is a lot of new air to clear in the high jump.
Patterson did advance to finals and was able to compete beside Blockburger's former protégé, Sharon Day, as she qualified for the 2008 Olympic team.
"Seeing her react to making the team was so inspiring," Patterson said. "That's something that stuck with me."
The top three qualifiers achieving the Olympic "A" standard make the U.S. Olympic team. So the thought of Patterson and Barrett being on an Olympic team together is not far-fetched.
Representing the U.S. and competing alongside her best friend at the London Games is a thought so exhilarating Patterson could only put into these words: "It would be the coolest thing ever."
Patterson feels Barrett is well prepared for her first Olympic Trials after already competing at several international meets, including World University Games and World Championships in 2011.
"At big meets a lot of people stare at the door of opportunity and don't always open it," Barrett said. "You have to make a choice to open it. At Trials, it's time to walk through that door."
In Patterson's head, trials is just another time to go, compete, and enjoy the purity of the sport.
"It comes down to `Who is the best on this day?'" Patterson said.
As the days until trials tick down, you can bank on Patterson and Barrett rising early to get the edge. Jumping at their best on their jump days to get comfortable with the highest of heights. And competing with each other daily, sincerely wanting to make each other better on and off the track.
Like Hughes, these high jumping queens would never be content with mere success. After every success, they are gearing up for that next level of greatness.
In those moments leading up to their jumps that could catapult them onto the Olympic team, Hughes advises Liz and B.B. to "free their minds."
"Be prepared for it. Don't try to do anything different. You're prepared. You're made for this," Hughes said. "It's just another competition with a greater reward."