Big Ten decathlon champion Björn Barrefors accepts his Student-Athlete of the Year Award.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Taught Barrefors the Art of Leadership

By NU Athletic Communications

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Nebraska’s 2013 Male Student-Athlete of the Year is steeped in athletic and academic achievements. Björn Barrefors is a school record-setting decathlete who won a Big Ten Conference title the same year the league honored him as a Distinguished Scholar. He’s on the verge of becoming the first four-time Academic All-American at a school that tops the charts for the College Sports Information Directors of America’s prestigious honor. A Computer Science major with minors in Mathematics and Physics, Barrefors has achieved a 3.748 GPA at the same time he’s pole vaulted 16-8¾, long jumped 24-2 and high jumped 6-9. He’s also competitive in the sprints, hurdles, middle distance, distance, plus the shot put, discus and javelin.

That’s a load when you arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska, from Stockholm, Sweden, and feel fully prepared to show the world how athletic you are and how smart you are. But a funny thing happened on Barrefors’ way to the top individual honor a Husker student-athlete can achieve. He grew up. He learned why community outreach was important. And he completely redefined what he considered a leader. Even though he became a captain and a member of NU’s track and field Leadership Council, “I didn’t know how to lead in the beginning,” he said. “But luckily, there were plenty of good role models I could look up to and learn from.”

Osborne, Leblanc, Zimmer, Yu, Grimes Inspire

One was Tom Osborne, who always wants what’s best for the people around him and inspires others to feel the same way.

One was Dennis Leblanc, who keeps a laser-like focus on every student-athlete’s academic performance, especially when he’s one of Nebraska’s most decorated student-athletes ever.

One was Keith Zimmer, who encouraged community involvement so Björn could mingle with kids who didn’t have it as easy as he did.

One was Dr. Ying Lu, an associate professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department who taught Barrefors to pursue his major with the same gusto he gave Kris Grimes, his combined events coach for the decathlon.

“Nebraska has opened up doors I never even knew existed,” Barrefors said. “The major I chose coming in my freshman year has become more than just homework and tests. It’s become a part of my identity. I’ve always had the potential to be a top student, but until I came here, I rarely enjoyed school, so I didn’t put that much work into it.”

Problem-Solving Skills Help Make a Difference

Nebraska inspired Barrefors to optimize all of his skills, athletically, academically and socially. “In computer science, I found a way to make a difference in the world, using my problem-solving skills and cognitive thinking.”

Dr. Lu convinced Barrefors to do undergraduate research with her on cluster computing. When Björn learned from a recent study that the improvements in cluster computing could save the government up to $5 billion in energy, he knew the importance of graduate school this fall. “With the knowledge I have and the inspiration Dr. Lu provides, I can’t wait to begin helping with that research,” Barrefors said.

It’s a team-first deal, and Nebraska has nurtured the art of leadership for a student-athlete who arrived in Lincoln thinking otherwise. “I came from a very different culture, where the individual cares about himself,” Barrefors said. “Growing up, I was always someone that would take charge and lead in group projects. But coming to Nebraska, for the first time, I was called upon to lead a team.”

After a couple of tough conference losses, Barrefors learned to look at productivity through the eyes of a team instead of through his own lens. He joined the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to sharpen his leadership skills and found himself getting involved with the Lighthouse Community Center, where he hung out with kids and learned to appreciate people who didn’t come from a similar background.

Now It’s Time to Help Other Achieve Success

“At Nebraska, I’ve had the pleasure to meet so many inspiring people that have helped me become a better person,” Barrefors said. “Now, it’s my turn to help others reach the same success I have.”

Life Skills became refuge from his daily pressure-cooker. “Keith Zimmer is very humble and very empathetic,” he said. “He and his whole team are always there to help any student-athlete, whether it’s nailing an interview, searching for a job or just having somebody to talk to …. about anything. For me, and for any student-athlete at Nebraska, Life Skills workers are more than members of the athletic department. They’re friends. They’re mentors, and in a fast-paced world, when pressure to perform comes from everywhere, that skill is invaluable.”

Barrefors took Dr. Lu’s 310-level course on data structures and algorithms and took her 455-level course on distributed operating systems. “Björn is very active in my classes and often raises questions that demonstrate his capability in critical thinking,” Lu said. “He’s among the very few students who always actively participate in in-class problem-solving and shares his answers with classmates. It’s a pleasure to have a student with his problem-solving skills, his enthusiasm and diligence and such excellent interpersonal skills. He’s an asset to the work place. He’s already been admitted and awarded a research assistant position in our Holland Computing Center and will become a graduate student in our department this fall.”

Whatever individual mindset Barrefors brought with him from Sweden to Nebraska is now behind him. He’s proven to be a great leader with a team focus … and a future every bit as bright as a changed mind inside a changed man.

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