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From Mesopotamia to Master Champion

Arlington man wins track and field gold medal at World Masters Games.

At five o’clock each morning, First Sergeant James Barr would leave his encampment near Al-Haillah to run several miles in the Iraqi desert before the sun rose and the temperature soared to 120 degrees.

While most of the Marine company he was stationed with slept, Barr would lift sand bags as weights, sprint down the banks of the Euphrates River or jog through the ruins of ancient Babylonian cities. The rigorous training regiment was an escape from the pressures of working in a combat zone, where sniper fire and roadside rocket attacks were an hourly occurrence.

Throughout his seven-month tour of duty in Iraq, beginning with the initial invasion in March 2003, Barr focused on preparing for the track and field competition at the 2005 World Masters Games in Edmonton.

“You do whatever you can to keep yourself fit,” said Barr, who has lived in Arlington for the past decade. “If I wanted to compete in the meet I had to start training early. It was also a sanity-check for me.”

THE MONTHS OF sacrifice and dedication paid off at the World Masters Games in late July, where Barr accomplished the goal that so motivated in Iraq: He won the gold medal in the outdoor pentathlon, which is composed of the long jump, the javelin throw, the 200-meter dash, the discus and the 1500-meter run.

Barr also took home silver medals in the individual javelin and high jump fields and a bronze medal in the weight pentathlon. More than 22,000 athletes participated in the 2005 World Masters Games, in which individuals over the age of 30 compete in dozens of sporting events.

“I’m extremely proud of him,” said Stacey Knobler, who has been married to Barr for five years. “It’s fantastic that he has remained so committed to something he enjoys.” Knobler said her husband’s dedication to training while in Iraq made him “a more voracious competitor” and better prepared him to handle stressful situations.

The first day of the competition was a difficult one for Barr, who claimed the bronze at the 2002 World Masters Games in Melbourne, Australia. A combination of “big meet jitters” and a swirling wind produced his poorest javelin performance “since the 10th grade.” But Barr bounced back to dominate the field in the subsequent days, and set a personal best in the high jump.

“I was very pleased with my performance,” said Barr, 37, who has a penchant for modesty and would sheepishly look down at his hands whenever he was forced to discuss his athletic prowess. “The caliber of the athletes was amazing and it was a great opportunity to compete against world champions and Olympians.”

Last week Barr was honored by the Arlington County Board for his achievement. “For him to win the gold is quite impressive,” said Board Member Paul Ferguson, who has watched Barr train on multiple occasions in their Fairlington neighborhood. “Arlington is very proud of his accomplishment.”

BARR, A NATIVE of Baton Rouge, La., spurned attending Louisiana State University, where he could have competed in track and field, in favor of joining the U.S. Army. He trained with the Army team, though he never officially competed.

“I went into the military because I wanted to serve my country and thought it was a good way to develop character and discipline,” said Barr, who is now an information operations officer with the 305th Psyop Company.

He was a member of the U.S. Presidential Honor Guard and attended the University of Maryland, where he received a degree in Mathematics. He was briefly on the Maryland track and field team, but had to quit because of academic and work commitments.

Barr worked as an IT consultant before deploying to Bosnia as a peacekeeper in 1997, under the auspices of NATO command. In Bosnia he helped aid reconstruction efforts and worked to ease ethnic tensions that existed in the wake of the 1991-1995 war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people. Later that year Barr returned to Bosnia with Knobler to act as election supervisors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Barr was assigned to act as a psychological operations officer with the First Marine Expeditionary Force during the invasion of Iraq. He was the “eyes and ears” of the Marine command and was a liaison to both public affairs officers and Iraqi leaders. Barr regularly met with tribal elders to discuss reconstruction projects and coordinate the allocation of funds to restore electricity service and rebuild schools.

“My main focus was to get my finger on the pulse of the people and see how we can help them get on with their lives,” Barr said.

Now back in Arlington, Barr helps prepare the troops in his company for deployment to Iraq. Barr does not expect to go back to Iraq in April, when large segments of his company will depart. He also completed a six-month Arabic immersion course since his return.

“When you have people getting ready to go to a war zone it is important to guide and direct them,” Barr said. “I love interacting with the soldiers on a daily basis.”

Barr is a member and coach of the Potomac Valley Track Club, based in Arlington, and is trying to bring more track and field events to the county. He hopes a new track will be completed on the North Tract property, which will eventually house a sports and recreation facility.

Barr currently has his sights on competing in the indoor World Masters Game Championship in Austria next March, but is unsure if he will receive time off or sponsorship from the Army, which failed to fund him for this year’s games. Either way, Barr is committed to defending his gold medal in the 2009 World Masters Games.

“I can still beat the 30-year-olds,” said Barr, chuckling. “And it’s great to have this personal goal to shoot for.”