I once knew a guy named Hymie Hyman Fishenfeld. The problem was that he looked just like his name, like he would have been picked last in P.E., after Woody Allen and Paul Simon. It's horribly stereotypical—and yet, at the same time, quite a lot of fun—to try to categorize people based solely on their names.
Take, for example, Sheldon Blockburger. You figure that a guy with a name like that has got to be working on Wall Street and stealing your grandmother's pension by buying and selling seventh derivatives of mortgages that don't actually exist. Or maybe he's the lawyer called upon to defend the Wall Street guy who took your grandma's pension. (No, wait! Those guys never get prosecuted.)
However, our Sheldon Blockburger—currently part of the University of Arizona track and field coaching staff—is a molder of champions and a purveyor of good. As the coach in charge of jumps and combined events (men's decathlon, women's heptathlon), Blockburger has helped the UA muscle its way into the top tier of teams in the tough Pac-12 Conference and has his athletes leading the charge as the Wildcat teams earn Top 10 finishes at the NCAA Championships these days. (The UA women finished fifth, and the men seventh this past season.)
Plus, Blockburger doesn't look anything like a stock broker. He looks like he just came in off the beach after a day of volleyball in the sand, interrupted by the occasional dip in the surf. His only real nod to the professionalism of coaching at the collegiate level is that he wears closed-toed athletics shoes, rather than sandals, when he walks around McKale Center. He does, however, probably use real derivatives, like the first one that denotes velocity, and the second derivative, which yields acceleration.
The guy can flat-out coach. He coached Jake Arnold to back-to-back NCAA Decathlon championships in 2006 and 2007. In 2010, he coached Liz Patterson to the NCAA indoor high-jump championship. Patterson would go on to finish second in both the NCAA outdoor championships and the U.S. National Championships.
This year, he coached Edgar Rivera-Morales to the conference indoor title in the high jump and Nick Ross to the championship in the same event at the Pac-10 outdoor championships. But his greatest protégé—thus far, and maybe forever—may turn out to be Brigetta Barrett, the Singing Jumper.
Brigetta (pronounced Brih-GEE-tuh, with a hard "g") Barrett is all that is right about intercollegiate athletics. She's humble, polite, outgoing and friendly—great student, great athlete, great person to get to know. However, thus far, unlike a bunch of other college athletes (who get all the attention), she hasn't kicked somebody in the face in a bar fight, taken wads of money that wasn't hers, or driven around in several different sports cars that she doesn't own.
No, all she has done this calendar year (in chronological order) is:
• Win the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation indoor high jump championship.
• Win the NCAA indoor high jump championship.
• Win the Pac-10 outdoor championship.
• Win the NCAA outdoor championship.
• Win the U.S. National Championship.
• Be named the 2011 Indoor Field Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Oh yeah, a couple of weeks ago, she won the World University Games championship in Shenzhen, China, with a personal-best leap of 6 feet, 5 inches. Right now, she and Blockburger are in Daegu, South Korea, for the IAAF World Championships, which are the equivalent of the Olympic Games in non-Olympic years. The women's high-jump finals are scheduled for Saturday in Daegu, which is sometime Friday Tucson time (or it has already happened, and we just don't understand how that International Date Line thing works).
Barrett is something of a sensation in the track world. In an event known for head cases and ... shall we say, unique personalities, she sets the gold standard in the latter by singing constantly. She sings when she walks across campus, when she's studying, when she's stretching, when she's practicing, and when she's competing.
I asked Brigetta if her singing bothered her competitors, and she just smiled and said, "I don't think so. Nobody has ever complained about it."
I'm sorry, but if I'm in an event that requires focus and several athletic moves, all executed to perfection, and my competitor (and the odds-on favorite to win the event) is singing, I'm gonna hire a sniper! In the words of Martin Lawrence, I don't want to hurt anybody permanently; I just want her to fall hard.
I asked Blockburger the same question about Barrett, and he laughed. "It's crazy. Everybody just loves Brigetta. She could be (causing serious harm) to a bunny rabbit, and everybody would say, 'Oh, look at Brigetta. Isn't that cute?'"
He thinks that Barrett can win a medal at next year's Olympic Games in London and that Patterson could be in the top five or better.
Barrett should fit right in there. England does love its songbirds. She's like Dusty or Duffy or Adele, only with hops.