Feature17 Jul 2020

For Nilsen, life after lockdown means resuming Duplantis chase


Chris Nilsen after winning the 2019 Pan American Games pole vault title (© AFP/Getty Images)

Chris Nilsen outdueled Armand “Mondo” Duplantis to win the 2019 NCAA outdoor pole vault title, setting a meet record of 5.95m. It was a lofty achievement for Nilsen considering Duplantis’s rare defeats and recent ascension to the top of the vaulting world.

“We had a battle at the NCAA indoor meet my (third) year in 2018 when he won and I was second and then we flip-flopped at the outdoor meet and I got the win while he was second,” Nilsen says about his duels with Duplantis, the current world record holder. “It was a very good battle both times – I just happened to have one more pole in my bag while he seemed to run out of poles at the end.”

Duplantis, 20, broke indoor world records on consecutive weekends in February – in Torun, Poland and Glasgow, Scotland, raising the mark to 6.17m and 6.18m.

Nilsen, 22, also displayed top form that same month, having jumped an NCAA indoor record and personal best of 5.93m as a 22-year-old in his final year at the University of South Dakota.

“Right pole, right jump,” Nilsen says, summing up the record succinctly. 

Nilsen has cemented his status as the top pole vaulter on the U.S. collegiate circuit, winning three NCAA titles over consecutive years. He collected titles in his first (indoors), second and third years of competition and was a favorite to claim two more victories this year before the Covid-19 outbreak forced cancellations. March’s indoor championship in New Mexico was cancelled just 24 hours prior to the start with teams already on-site. 

“When everything hit the fan and things were shut down, I felt like I’ve already done my job, so I was ready to leave,” Nilsen says regarding his four years at South Dakota.

The culmination to Nilsen’s superb collegiate pole vaulting career may have come in unfortunate fashion, however, as the 1.98m tall athlete has already started to make his mark on the international scene.

Nilsen soared to a Pan Am Games gold medal in Lima, Peru in August of 2019 and also represented the United States at the 2017 world championships at age 19. He was 13th. Although the Kansas City, Missouri native has yet to jump onboard the Diamond League circuit, he has already ascended to seventh in the pole vault world rankings.

The talented competitor also finished second and third at the past two national outdoor championships, runner-up to Sam Kendricks in 2018. 

Nilsen is prepared to join the international circuit full-time, as the global health situation allows, with sights set on the postponed U.S. Olympic Trials, re-scheduled for 18-27 June, 2021, at the newly renovated Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

“It’s definitely a priority to get on the professional circuit and go to Diamond League meets as much as we can because that’s where you make a name for yourself,” he says. “If you can be successful at those meets, then there is no doubt that you can be successful on bigger stages like the Olympics, World Championships or the Pan American Games.

“Above all, the priority now is staying safe,” he added. “If the opportunity for meets opens up, then we’ll cross that bridge and do it.”

Chasing Mondo

Perhaps a silver lining to the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games is that it affords additional time for Nilsen, and other elite vaulters, the unenviable task of solving how to catch up to Duplantis.

“Having another year to get ready for it is only going to make the competition that much stronger,” Nilsen said.

“Everybody is trying to catch Mondo, but I don’t think it’s going to be possible for awhile,” Nilsen surmises. “That kid’s been vaulting for 16 years now and his training is miles above everybody else.”

Nilsen says nothing surprises him about Duplantis.

“I knew for a fact that once he matured into a man from a boy with all the potential and talent he had as a teen-ager, he was just going to multiply that tenfold,” Nilsen says. “Being twenty years old, that’s a pretty good age to jump a world record.

“When he jumped 6.18 and he had like a foot of height on it, I was like that’s really impressive,” Nilsen added. “He was jumping six metres as an 18-year-old who just graduated high school.

“It’s a kick in the butt for everybody to feel like this kid is breaking world records and kicking everybody’s butt, so we needed to get a move on. Then everyone in the U.S. started exploding with 19-foot-jumps or 5.80m jumps.”

Sky is the limit 

Nilsen has benefited from the coaching of 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Derek Miles while at South Dakota. Miles sees loads of potential in Nilsen’s vaulting.

“He is still young and because of that he is still learning how to transfer his speed and power into the pole,” Miles said. “There is still a lot of room for improvement that will just take time and repetition down the runway.

“As he learns how much energy can still be utilised at the plant of the pole, the hope is that he begins to use bigger poles, which generally equates to higher bars. 

“He is also still weak in his core, so further development in this area will also strengthen his consistency and power output. I believe he has the ability to jump six metres in the next two years.”

Returning after lockdown, with double duty

Like many athletes around the globe, Nilsen’s training came to an abrupt halt as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in late March.

“It was about three months without vaulting,” Nilsen said about lockdown in Vermillion, South Dakota. “I vaulted a couple days ago actually – the USD facilities just opened up about a month ago.

“It was kind of a rust-breaker having to figure out how to vault again. I’m more focused on training, but getting a vault session in once or twice a week.

“Training every day now, so when things do open up, we will be ready to go.”

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Reflecting back on my season, it’s been so much fun. And at the end of the day, that’s the goal of every athlete, and I’d say I achieved that! Have fun with what you’re doing, learn from both the good and the bad days, and enjoy the experience. I consider myself extremely blessed, not only to be able to compete on the world stage, but to do it with such amazing people who have done nothing but influence me positively and shape me into the person I am today. This includes people on and off the track. I’m so extremely excited and ready for my senior season as a coyote! Hope to see everyone on the track, and Go Yotes!! #polevault #goyotes Video is 5.73/18’9.5” from Zurich Diamond League final, and I hope I’m able to go back next year!

A post shared by Chris Nilsen (@nilsenvault) on

Nilsen remains determined to achieve greater heights, doing so with a two-and-a-half year old son at home to care for. Nilsen separated from his wife in July 2019. 

“Whenever he gets his chance to get his hands on a pole or do something ridiculously athletic for his age, he’ll do it,” Nilsen says about his son Roman. “He’s already attuned to running and jumping around whenever he can.

“I’m not sure if he is going to be a pole vaulter, but he seems athletic enough that he could probably do whatever he wants.”

Roman obviously has inherited his father’s athleticism. Nilsen has demonstrated that all-rounded athleticism not only while launching skyward on a pole, but also as a two-metre collegiate high jumper.

“I high jumped at the indoor conference meet this year because my team needed the help, so I decided to throw on the high jump spikes and give it a shot,” Nilsen said.

For now, Nilsen’s high jump capabilities have taken a back seat as he gazes skyward at higher crossbars in his preferred event. And perhaps he might even get another shot at Duplantis somewhere down the road.

“Mondo has been doing this for so long that his repetitions are through the roof – he has thousands more vaults than I have, or maybe ever will,” Nilsen says. “I need to get more reps – my speed and strength are getting to that optimal point with my age and training, so at this point, I think it’s just improving my technique.”

Brian Pinelli for World Athletics