Mikele “Miki” Barber has enjoyed a remarkable career as an amateur and a professional in track and field. Barber collected 21 All-America titles in various sprint events and five NCAA titles, including three individual titles while competing for the Gamecocks from 1999-2003. She is also a member the USC Association of Lettermen’s Athletics Hall of Fame class for 2015.
“I wanted to cry tears of joy when I found out,” Barber said. “I’ve only done that one other time in my life, and that’s when I made the U.S. World Championships team in 2011 when I was 31. Being called a ‘Hall of Famer’ at South Carolina, that’s huge. It’s very humbling, and I’m so grateful. I love South Carolina. I’m a Gamecock ‘til I die.”
In addition to being part of South Carolina’s first-ever NCAA title winning team in 2002, she was a member of the USA Olympic team in 2000 and the 2001 team competing at the World Championships. Now living in Los Angeles, the 34-year-old hasn’t lost a step, and she recently competed in a meet in Atlanta.
“Track has been such a blessing because I’ve been able to travel the world since I was 17,” Barber said. “I’ve met people all over the world. That’s how great this sport is. I’m proud to have gone to South Carolina. When I made those teams for the Olympics, the World Championships or the Pan Am games, I was competing for Team USA, but it was also for South Carolina.”
While she is still enjoying a professional career on the track, Barber had to learn early on about dealing with adversity.
“When the team won the 2002 national championship, I was in a cast after my first foot surgery,” Barber said. “I wanted to be there for my team. I told them to run the race like it was the last meet they would ever run. They all ran the best races of their careers.”
While the injury kept her from taking part in that particular race, she was thrilled to watch her twin sister and South Carolina teammate, Me’Lisa Barber, enjoy a spectacular day on the track as part of her outstanding career as well.
“The most memorable moment for me though was watching my sister when she took second in the 400 meters at the NCAA meet,” Barber said. “She was really a 100 meter runner, but she told me that she was going to do it for me. She ran a personal best and was the runner-up at the national championships.”
Coach (Curtis) Frye made sure that we were confident and worked well as a team. Every day in practice was like a track meet for us.
The New Jersey native continued to rack up accolades throughout her collegiate career, and she was honored to be a part of Team USA following her sophomore year for the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
“Honestly, I felt like it was just something I was supposed to be doing,” Barber said. “It wasn’t hard for me, but I was very hard on myself because I felt like I was the fastest woman in the world. I always had confidence in myself. That’s what has kept me in this game for so long. I was the indoor and outdoor champion as a sophomore, and I made the Olympic team. So maybe I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until I got older.”
It didn’t take long for her to realize what she was a part of as she donned the red, white and blue uniform.
“I actually got some TV time during the opening ceremonies,” Barber laughed. “My sister said the camera zoomed in on my face, and my eyes were just so big. I looked like I was in total awe. It was great. Muhammad Ali kissed me on the cheek. I met (current South Carolina women’s basketball coach) Dawn Staley at the Olympic Village. I met Kevin Garnett, Tommy Lasorda and Brandi Chastain. It was an unreal experience.”
After graduating from South Carolina, Barber continued to compete for Team USA in international competition, winning gold at the 2007 World Championships as well as the 2007 and 2009 Pan American games. As she looks back, Barber reminisces about how her experience at South Carolina helped sharpen her talents.
“Coach (Curtis) Frye made sure that we were confident and worked well as a team,” Barber said. “Every day in practice was like a track meet for us. I think we had the second ranked recruiting class in the nation, and everyone was hard-working, supportive and very dedicated and determined to get better. That really prepared me to last as long as I have in professional track and field. We were mentally strong.”
At 5’3” tall, Barber has looked up to other athletes who weren’t the biggest in their sport, but still made an impact, such as former NBA star Allen Iverson. It’s her mom and dad (Cheryl and Ronald Barber), however, who have inspired her the most.
“I remember when my mom was 34 years old,” Barber said. “I thought she was old. It’s not easy to raise children. They were great role models because they are well-rounded people who worked hard. When I was growing up, I remember how they loved each other and were very respectful of each other. They provided such a great blueprint of how it should be.”
Barber began running track when she was 14, and she is not slowing down. She has been her own agent at times during her career, negotiating her own sponsorship deals. She feels that her experiences in track and field have given her applicable experience outside of the athletics realm. While she feels like she is prepared for life after athletics, she’s still not ready to hang up the running shoes yet.
“Every day I work at making that transition easier,” Barber said. “I’ve come to terms that my track career isn’t going to last forever. I didn’t think it would last this long. When I was 19 years old, I never thought I’d still be able to run and compete at 34. It’s a job, but I still have that love and passion for it. If that time comes in the next year or two where I am no longer competing, my experience in track and field has made me feel like an entrepreneur in that I’m prepared for the unexpected. Nothing is stable in the world of track and field. I’ll look forward to whatever happens next.”