FAIRFAX, Va. -- There have been times high jumper Tony Barton has rocketed into world-class territory, and other times when he can't escape his own mind.
"Oh, he can jump 7-8 or 7-8 1/2 any day," said Norm Gordon, Barton's coach. "And five or six years from now, he's going to go significantly higher because he's only been competing for just a short while.
"Tony's problem is that he has to become more focused and develop that killer instinct, bear down at the right time. Once he does -- because he's so young -- watch out."
So, which Barton will show up for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials starting Friday in New Orleans?
"The focused one," said Barton. "I know my biggest battle is with myself and then the bar."
Barton, 22, from Milford Mill, is ranked 23rd in the world and No. 9 in the United States, with a personal best of 7 feet, 7 inches set two years ago in the Jamaican National Relays. But he has beaten some of the best in the world. Three weeks ago, Barton finished third in the New York games with a jump of 7-5 1/4 , ahead of world-record holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, the only person to clear 8 feet, and former American record-holder Hollis Conway.
"Of the 11 jumpers, I had the lowest PR [personal record] of all of them," said Barton. "The competition was like the Olympic finals. All the big names were there. It boils down to having a good day. I figure if I have an average day, I'll make the Olympic team."
Unless he gets caught up in the head games. Sometimes, trivial matters like forgetting to make a hotel reservation will unnerve Barton.
"I get right to my mark, and I take off as soon as I hear my name," said Barton. "If I sit around, a lot of negative stuff runs through my mind.
Gordon has helped change Barton's conditioning and approach during the last year. Barton is using more aerobics and has reduced his approach to the bar from 17 to 19 feet.
"We've gotten him to accelerate more in those last two steps," said Gordon. "A lot of this is coming together for Tony. We want to get him past that stage where he thinks through every phase. A normal jump takes about 2.8 seconds if you know what you're doing. It takes 5.6 if you're thinking through every stage."
Barton is still in the formative stages of his track career. At Milford Mill, he played football, tennis and lacrosse and wrestled, with little success. He only became a track flash in his senior year.
"He tried everything except track," said Jesse Hannon, a track coach at Milford Mill. "I had him in class, and saw he had plenty of physical talent. For two years, I tried to get him out, but he wouldn't do it. Finally, he did."
Barton was a natural. He already had the springy legs, and the long, lanky torso -- he was 5 feet 9, 142 pounds. (He is now 6-2 1/2 and 167 pounds.) On his first jump during the indoor season, Barton went 5-6. By the end of the outdoor season, he jumped 6-8 3/4 , setting a Baltimore County record that still stands.
That season Barton also triple-jumped 46 feet, had a long jump best of 22 feet and ran the 110 hurdles in 14.3 seconds.
But Barton was having problems in school. A lot of colleges backed away because of his low grades, but with Hannon's help, Barton was able to attend Virginia State on a partial scholarship.
After his freshman year, Barton left Division II Virginia State for George Mason, a Division I school.
And now Barton, at 6-2 1/2 and 167 pounds, finds himself in position to participate in the Olympics.
"You have to perform that day," Barton said of the Olympic trials. "Even Carl Lewis can't say for sure that he's going [to Barcelona]. In 1988, the two high jump record-holders didn't even make the finals. It's like flipping the coin. Mentally, I've got to be right."
U.S. Olympic trials
When: Tomorrow through June 28
Where: Tad Gormley Stadium, New Orleans
What: Selection of 92 athletes to the U.S. Olympic track and field team
TV: Saturday and Sunday: NBC (chs. 2, 4) "Olympic Showcase."