FAYETTEVILLE — After recently designing rings for others, Andrew Irwin brought home a precious medal all his own.
It was authentic USA silver achieved last month in Sacramento, Calif. Placing second at the USA National meet placing certified the former Arkansas Razorback from Mount Ida as one of three pole vaulters representing the U.S. at next month’s World Championships in London.
The greatest men’s vaulter in University of Arkansas history, Irwin’s 2011-2015 Razorbacks tenure was marked with six All-American NCAA Championship finishes, two outdoors and four indoors. He won two NCAA Indoor championships and five SEC titles, and set existing UA vault records indoors, 18-10 1-4, and outdoors, 18-9 1-4.
But from his final meet for the Razorbacks through his first year as a UA grad, the 2016 Olympic year, Irwin’s career could have been captioned on a milk carton. He was missing, it seems.
The NCAA Outdoor Regionals, a meet that Arkansas Coach Chris Bucknam and his retired Razorbacks predecessor, John McDonnell, assert was voted in by smaller schools penalizing elite athletes from the Power 5 conference schools with an additional NCAA Outdoor qualifying meet, bit Irwin his freshman year after he won the NCAA Indoor and did so again his senior year.
“Not every day is perfect and it happened at regionals,” Irwin said. “My senior year I was jumping really well and then three jumps at Regionals and I was done.”
Vaulting at the NCAA West and East Outdoor Preliminary meets defies the vaulting psyche taken into every other meet.
At those prelim meets there is no vault champion, you just vault until it’s down to a dozen who have cleared the latest bar advancing to the NCAA Outdoor Championships and then the vault shuts down.
Irwin took both regionals mishaps like a man.
“Nobody really likes it,” Irwin said of regionals. “But we can’t complain too much. You’ve got to do it one way or another. It is what it is.”
What it was, his senior year, was costly. No presence at the NCAA Outdoor Championships ultimately meant no sponsors for his post collegiate vaulting. Irwin was on his own, finding work where he could to pay for a vaulting career injury detoured to a 2016 Olympic year dead end.
“It was a very long year last year,” Irwin said. “I fell indoors last year and wrecked cartilage in my (left) ankle and I had to have surgery.”
Bye-bye Olympic Trials. So it was a forgotten man, some track fans perhaps thought risen from the dead June, 24, 2017 vaulting an outdoor personal best/World Championships standard surpassing 18-10 1-4 for second in the country at Sacramento.
“To be honest I’m not sure how everybody reacted,” Irwin said. “I definitely fell off the face of the planet in the pole vault world being injured for a year.”
But his coaches, Morry Sanders at the Arkansas Vault Club in Black Springs, and his dad, Steve Irwin, kept coaching him when he was back home in Mount Ida.
Razorbacks assistants Travis Geopfert and Doug Case, his main UA vault coach, continued assisting Irwin in Fayetteville.
Meanwhile the UA grad in criminal justice became a salesman and designer.
“It (his degree) has nothing to do with business,” Irwin said. “It’s who you know. A guy I know was working with a graduation company here in Fayetteville that was serving some high schools in the area. I actually designed a few rings for the U of A women’s track team. That was fun. They had one (SEC) triple crown ring and another national championship (2016 NCAA Outdoor and 2015 NCAA Indoor) ring.”
Now he’s World Championships London bound bearing U.S. silver.
“It’s not quite like making the Olympic team,” Irwin said. “But for this year it’s the best that you can do.”
Irwin believes that best would be a 19-feet clearing medal contender.
“I have jumped 19-feet in practice,” Irwin said. “It’s in there. I just have to get it lined up. Because it only counts when it counts.”