Mark Barr takes his sport very seriously, but not himself.
The longtime competitive swimmer completed his first triathlon only two years ago, yet he has rapidly improved, won two national championships and will soon represent the United States in his first International Triathlon Union (ITU) Paratriathlon World Championships Oct. 22 in New Zealand.
Yet when asked what he brings to his new sport from all years in a pool, he can’t resist poking fun at himself.
“As a swimmer, we’re generally not too good on land,” he says, laughing. “A clumsy biker and runner is what I bring to the sport.”
If that’s the case, then look out, because Barr already has shown he may be a serious contender to make the U.S. team for Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, where the sport of paratriathlon will make its debut.
In May, Barr won the 2012 USA Paratriathlon National Championship in Austin, Texas, posting a time of 1:27:09 over the sprint-distance (750-meter swim, 20k bike and 5k run) course. That victory, in the Tri-2 category for above-the-knee amputees, earned him a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at Auckland, New Zealand, in the Paratriathlon World Championships.
In 2010, Barr won his first national championship, in 2:55:03, when the race was held at the longer Olympic distance of 1.5k swim, 40k bike and 10k run. (Paralympic and national/international Paratriathlon races now have been set at the sprint-level distance.)
Barr, in fact, has competed in just three triathlons — two at the Olympic distance and one at the sprint distance.
The fact he’s still just a rookie in the sport at the age of 26 makes him believe there’s plenty of room to improve.
Since competing in his first triathlon — at the urging of his then-girlfriend/now-wife Chelsea — Barr realized he had much to learn. For one thing, he didn’t have a proper triathlon bike, and for another he didn’t have running- or cycling-specific prostheses for his right leg. That made his transitions incredibly slow, because he had just one prosthetic knee and had to change the lower-leg portions of the prostheses.
In New Zealand he’s eager to see what he can do with better equipment in his first race against an international field.
“This will be my first triathlon that I have two separate prostheses, one for the run and one for the bike,” he said.
Barr, who left Sunday for New Zealand said he’s been training hard in recent weeks and is, “Excited to see how fast I can go.”
He’s not certain where he stands against some of the world’s best. Because every triathlon course is different, times vary, so his time of 1:27:09 in Texas in May is hard to compare.
“I’ve seen a lot of times that are about an hour 20, and then I’ve seen a time that was an hour 10,” he said. He knows he’s done well head-to-head against top American athletes, though, so that gives him confidence.
Barr’s short-term goal is to test himself against the world’s best in New Zealand. His long-term goal is to shoot for the 2016 Paralympic Team.
Now that the sport has been adopted for Rio, though, he knows the next four years will be a challenge. He’s certain the field of athletes will grow deeper.
“There’s going to be a lot of athletes coming from other sports now,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty exciting, the competition and the athletes that are going to come out.”
Just as Barr did.
Barr was a collegiate swimmer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and competed in two Paralympic Games in the pools at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. In Athens, he came close to medaling, finishing fourth in the 100-meter butterfly and 400-meter freestyle. Shortly before Beijing, in June 2008, Barr had his appendix removed but went to the Paralympic Games and competed in six events.
But after graduating from college, Barr found it hard to keep up with his training, so he “kind of retired” from swimming. Still, he was looking for some type of athletic outlet, so he got into road biking. Eventually, Chelsea, a runner, got him into running and he introduced her to swimming — and they signed up for their first triathlon together in 2010.
In that first race, his performance caught the attention of representatives of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, who encouraged him to enter the national championship in New York in 2010, and he won.
“Just having a competitive aspect back in my life is pretty exciting,” he said. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”
It’s been a busy last couple of years for Barr, who completed nursing school in 2011 and now works as a nurse on the night shift in the surgical intensive care unit at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston.
He took much of last year off from training to focus on school and landing a full-time position.
He starts work at 5:30 p.m., gets up about 1 p.m. each day and then gets his training in, usually about an hour or 90 minutes six days a week. It’s a schedule he actually likes — he would rather do that than try to train super early in the morning before a day shift.
“I had to get some blackout blinds for my bedroom to make it a cave,” he said, laughing. “But as long as someone’s not mowing the lawn outside, the yard keepers aren’t out there, I can sleep pretty good.”
Once he’s up, he’s off and running (and swimming and biking), concentrating on shorter, high-intensity workouts to match the sprint distance.
Swimming, understandably, is his strength. He believes he needs to make his biggest improvement on the bike because, as the longest portion of the race, he can shave the most off his time.
After two years, though, he still feels like a novice. He’s constantly making adjustments with his equipment.
As an above-the-leg amputee, he said he’s been struggling to find the right person to help him with his running leg.
His leg was amputated above the knee when he was 14 because of a tumor. In swimming, he didn’t have to concern himself with a prosthesis; he just dove into the water and did his thing. But with running, in particular, it’s been a series of forward and backward steps.
He now works with a prosthetics expert (who will be with him in New Zealand) who can adjust his equipment. Since the national championships in May, he knows he’s been able to train harder because of the help he’s received.
“As an above-the-knee, my stump always changes sizes and something will work for a couple of weeks and then it will stop working because you’ve gained muscle or you lose weight or something,” he explained. “It’s just a constant need for adjustments.”
After just two years in the sport — and learning so much already — he’s optimistic about his competitive future. Already he looks back and sees how far he’s come.
“I’ve come a long way and I’m sure next year when I’m looking back, it’ll be hopefully the same way and I’ll continue to move forward,” he said.
Even as a one-time fish out of water.