The Legend of Klaus Barth

By: 
Roberto Vazquez
KLAUS BARTH at the finish line, 1986 Ironman Triathlon

It’s been 15 years since the proud German passed into eternity, but Klaus Barth still has a visceral effect on people.

“There isn’t a week that doesn’t go by without someone saying something to me.”

These days, Shari Barth is busy. There are five grandkids to love and look after, to cheer on. “They call me, ‘Oma.’ It’s German, for grandma.”

Barth is in a good mood, her voice upbeat as she shares stories of grandchildren and her remarkable husband, the legendary Klaus Barth.

“It does my heart good that he’s so fondly remembered.”

Klaus passed away at age 57, on Oct. 22, 2006. Twenty years prior, on Oct. 18, 1986, Barth became a Long Beach legend with an amazing performance. On that day he placed fourth at the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, the iconic event that made triathlons popular around the world.

Barth was 37 then, a husband and father, and a full-time teacher at Long Beach Wilson. He was also an amateur who trained part-time. The men who finished ahead (Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Mark Allen) were each professionals and later enshrined into the Ironman Hall of Fame.

Beyond his achievements as a swimmer and triathlete, Barth is remembered for his impact on others, especially youth. Shari says, “He believed in kids.” One of those individuals was Adam Wright, who Shari Barth describes, “was like a second son to Klaus.”

Wright is a three-time member of the men’s U.S. Olympic Water Polo team and a 2008 silver medalist in Beijing.

He is now the men’s water polo coach at UCLA and says, “Klaus instilled a work ethic in me that has served me well and has put me in a position to reach a lot of my goals, not only as an athlete but now as a coach.”

Wright continued, “His impact on the city, on a community, was so massive and his legacy deserves to have something of that stature, a pool, or a statue in a prominent area of Long Beach … it’s been 15 years.”

He suggests a new tradition, “The greatest gift you can give someone is confidence. I think Klaus would love the idea of a day of volunteering to teach people within the community of Long Beach to learn basic swimming. Bringing the community together. That’s what Klaus did. His impact on this community was second to none.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Dr. Tom Gallagher, Barth’s longtime training partner. Shari Barth describes Dr. Gallagher as being “like Klaus’ brother.”

Dr. Gallagher says, “I don’t know Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, but I know their stories and that’s what we want to do for Klaus and keep his memory alive.”

Gallagher added, “He should have an annual event, so his name is always remembered and reactivated every year. He is an inspiration still, a one of a kind, the type of guy who made everyone around him better.”

Even as Barth battled brain cancer, he inspired others, displaying rare courage, determination and sense of humor. Although he was given just six months to live by doctors, he survived for more than six years, coaching up until the end.

His Wilson High School colleague, Wes Edwards said, “After he was diagnosed, he never changed his warrior approach to coaching, or his life. All his friends and colleagues fed off his happy energy.”

Thus began the mantra, “LIVE LIKE KLAUS.”

The Klaus Barth Foundation donates to Wilson High School senior awards night, one male and one female aquatic scholarship, for the past 15 years.

It was his inspiring personality that Shari Barth credits for his effect on others, “He was like the glue that kept everybody together.” She added, “He had a great sense of humor, too. He was a crack-up!”

Klaus Barth did not live long enough to meet his five grandchildren. Their daughter Kristin and her husband, Chi Kredell, Jr., are parents to Chi, age 10, and Sydney, 7, and are directors of Long Beach Shore Aquatics.

Garrit Barth and his wife, Stephanie, are parents to Gannon, age 8, Sienna, 6, and Makoa, 3. Their daughter, Brianne, passed away on June 3, 2016.

Shari says, “They’re together. They’re up there.”

Shari Barth confides, “I really miss him, he was the love of my life. He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Then, Barth shares a very personal moment about this legend of a man.

During the 2006 Ironman, in his final days, Shari says Klaus Barth watched the pre-event activities on Friday, then spent Saturday looking at his watch, repeatedly.

“I’ll never forget it... On Sunday, when it was over, I said, ‘You can go now, it’s over. A German won!’”

He passed away that day.

The interview ends as she watches a baseball game, “Gotta go, my grandson is batting.”

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