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Björn Barrefors is smart, competitive and driven. He has speed, strength and agility. His athleticism comes with attitude, and growing up in Europe has prepared him well for the ultimate challenge, the supreme test of mind and body, the true reflector of character and determination ... the decathlon, a grueling 10-event, two-day competition that pits every man against himself and a scoring table that awards points for everything his mind permits his body to do. Fortunately, Barrefors, the Big Ten Conference champion who ranks fifth entering Wednesday's NCAA outdoor decathlon competition at Drake University in Des Moines, is as comfortable as he is confident. Even though he's one of two Swedish decathletes qualified for the 2012 European Championships later this month in Helsinki, Barrefors feels little pressure this week.
Credit the way he grew up in Falköping, Sweden (population: 16,350) for that. A small city that traces its roots back nine centuries ago was the perfect place for a young boy to fall in love with sport's most unique challenge - the mastery of the same 10 events that determine who's called the world's greatest athlete. Four years from now, Barrefors would like to be in such a conversation. But right now, he's doing what he's always done - enjoying every day of the journey, tolerating every ache and pain and preparing himself for the euphoria that follows getting amped up so he can capitalize on his strengths and maximize his scores.
Even though his Big Ten championship effort produced a personal best score of 7,897 points last month at Wisconsin, Barrefors is worlds away from where he wants to be - a serious challenger for an Olympic medal in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. In the interim, he wants to pursue his dream the same way he's grown up. That means having fun, working hard, cherishing every opportunity to get better and knowing that he's not even halfway home in sharpening his overall skills. A 24-10 long jump and a 16-10 pole vault put Barrefors in a world-class decathlon ranking in two events. His 14:31 110-meter hurdle time and his 6-9 personal record in the high jump are also marks worthy of major points. It's the other six events that need some serious attention and time to hone. Running 100, 400 and 1,500-meter races in two days is not easy, nor is learning the techniques required in the decathlon's three throwing events - the shot put, discus and javelin. "I'm not a good thrower, and I'm definitely not a good distance runner," Barrefors said. But give him time, and he will optimize his potential, especially if the situation for learning is right and his mind is fully focused.
Parents Always Supported, But Never Pushed
Björn Barrefors is one decathlete who sees the world differently than almost everyone else, and he traces that back to total family support. His dad's a professor in food science and food chemistry and his mom's an elementary school special education teacher. "My parents are very successful academically, but they never pushed me to achieve in either sports or academics," Barrefors said. "They just gave me the opportunities. They always supported me to the fullest, driving me to practice and getting engaged in all my clubs. But it was always on my conditions. So I was very lucky to have parents that gave me all the help I needed, but never once pushed me or put expectations on me, so I could enjoy everything I did."
Barrefors has two older sisters. One is a human resources manager for a large company, and the other a kindergarten teacher. "They picked very different careers, but they both really enjoy what they're doing and are successful at it," he said. "I'm the one into sports, but we're all three driven because we enjoy what we're doing and pursue it with everything we have in us."
Sometimes, in the midst of a grueling decathlon, Barrefors wonders where the rainbow is and why he's so heavily vested in sheer and utter exhaustion. "You know what they always say, don't you?" he asks me. Seeing a clueless response, he completes his thought. "They say first-day athlete, second-day decathlete," he said, indicating that endurance is so crucial in this equation, you don't always know for whom the bell tolls.
Bottom Line: It All Depends on How You Feel
"The decathlon is unpredictable," Barrefors said. "Going in, there's about 250 points between the No. 1 NCAA qualifier and No. 5. So much can happen in two days. You can win or you can get ninth. It all depends on how you feel. We always end the first day with the 400-meter race. It hurts. You think there's no way you'll get to the finish line. Your body is just screaming and trying to tell you it's not going to happen."
The next morning, a 110-meter hurdle race launches D-Day 2. "You get through it and just keep moving on to the next event," Barrefors said. "Finally, you only have one event left - the 1,500 meters. By then, your body aches so badly, you know it's the worst. You can hardly separate the mental from the physical. All you know is that you ache everywhere, and mentally, you're pretty much ready to collapse and just go to sleep. Your legs feel like jelly, and your body is rebelling every way you can think of."
That's why Barrefors always tries to find a spot in the middle of the day to lay down, put a towel over his head, close his eyes and relax, physically, mentally and emotionally. "So much is psychological," he said. "At that point, I don't want to do it for anyone else. I want to do it for myself and my own personal satisfaction. It's really tough at that point. It's one of the best and wildest feelings you can have in the decathlon. You're so relaxed, and you know what you're accomplishing. It's not just one event, but nine other ones to improve and keep working on."
Nebraska Accelerated His Academic Drive
Barrefors has been an All-American three times at Nebraska. He's been a First-Team CoSIDA Academic All-American. He even served one year as co-president of Nebraska's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Not bad for someone who grew up without much drive. "It (schoolwork) came pretty easy to me," he said. "Even though I wasn't driven in school early on and didn't work hard at it, I still performed pretty well. It just took me until college to perform at the highest academic level. Now, I'm pretty driven academically as well as athletically. I still have another senior outdoor season after this one. I want to get my PhD in computer science and then find a job in IT with a big company. Actually, working for Google is the goal I've set for myself. Then, I'd like to create my own start-up company."
Having such goals eases the timing on his athletic goals. "I've already achieved my major goal this year, qualifying for the European Championships. That's a big deal," he said. "The Olympics are not my goal. I don't see much fun in just competing and going. I want to wait four more years and be able to compete and perform at the highest level." Now that he's seen his childhood dream start to come to life, Barrefors doesn't want to take on some of the competitive angst Americans have.
"As a kid, I was a bit of a troublemaker in the sense that I would always resist authority, and really, that's still true," he said. "If you ask the Nebraska staff, you'll find I've pushed their buttons more than once to fight for things I believe in. I've had heated discussions with coaches and even people higher up. Thankfully, they've helped deal with that side of me and worked out solutions that have contributed to my latest success."
Barrefors Doesn't See Life in Black-and-White
Barrefors' latest thought process can be traced back to his fun-loving, even-keeled childhood. "My problem with authority does get me in trouble," Barrefors said. "Americans love bureaucracy and setting up rules, and I think there should be a human side to everything. I see a rulebook as more of a guideline than something set in stone. Overall, I've really enjoyed my experience at Nebraska, and I hope I've taught my American friends about being liberal and not always seeing everything in black-and-white."
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